5 major ways that Interior slashed protections for wildlife 

5 major ways that Interior slashed protections for wildlife 
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In a recent op-ed by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, he recounted how the administration is improving endangered species conservation. He said that this administration has recovered more species from the endangered and threatened list than any previous administration in their first term. It’s what he didn’t say that should have us all worried. 

Here are some major ways that his agency has slashed protections for threatened and endangered species. 

1. In 2019, the Interior Department disregarded more than 800,000 public comments in opposition to its proposal to weaken the implementation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and finalized its sweeping rewrite of ESA regulations. The new regulations eliminate vital protections for threatened species, weaken bedrock consultation requirements, open the door to burdensome and inappropriate cost-benefit analyses that risk politicizing the ESA’s science-based listing process, and much more. 


2. Despite Interior Secretary Bernhardt’s claim that “the Trump administration has recovered more species than any previous administration,” the truth is that decades of work by civil servants in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, working with conservation partners have recovered these species and the administration is taking credit. Species like Kirtland's warbler, the Hawaiian hawk, and the diminutive Foskett speckled dace are secure today because of hard, on-the-ground efforts carried out for many years, all in the face of a woefully underfunded ESA — which the administration has proposed to further cut. But that's not all. While the administration has been prioritizing delistings and downlistings, it has also avoided listing species. Consider the Pacific walrus, a species clearly threatened by climate change, which was one of 25 species the administration declined to list in 2017, or the unending delays to make a listing determination for the dunes sagebrush lizard, threatened by expanding oil and gas operations in the southwest. This clearly shows a pattern — not of protecting species and helping to fulfill the goals of the ESA — but cherry-picking cases that lead to a false storyline.  

3. In July, the administration broke its promise to reintroduce North Cascades grizzly bears despite ample public support and science, denying grizzlies access to their historic range. In March 2018, then-Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Interior shortlist puts focus on New Mexico lawmakers | Progressives criticize Biden transition over volunteer who represented Exxon | Trump DOJ appointees stalled investigation into Zinke: report Trump DOJ appointees stalled investigation into Zinke: report GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte wins Montana governor's race MORE committed to finalizing a plan to return grizzlies but instead, he issued a “stop work” order months later, providing no plan to continue the process. Biologists estimate there are fewer than 10 grizzly bears remaining in the North Cascades today, making it the most at-risk bear population in North America. 

4. In 2018, The Washington Post reported that Interior Department officials stripped information from a letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The letter warned U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials in 2017 about several ways that the wall could harm wildlife along the Texas border. Specifically, the border wall would reduce “habitat connectivity” for rare ocelots and jaguarundi that roam the Santa Ana and Lower Rio Grande Valley national wildlife refuges. 

5. In August, the Interior Department announced its reckless plan to lease the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain to the oil and gas industry. This destructive, unlawful plan would sell off one of America’s last great wildlands to the highest bidder, offering up almost the entire coastal plain for fossil fuel development. It’s an area that includes federally-designated critical habitat for denning Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears — one of the most imperiled on the planet that has declined dramatically in recent years. Just two years ago, "Mother Jones" reported that an internal Interior Department memo had issued a stark warning: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to allow oil exploration in the Arctic refuge could further jeopardize the region’s already fragile polar bear population. The document noted that the threat posed to the bears could make it legally challenging for the agency to authorize seismic exploration of the area’s oil and gas reserves. 

And all of this is on top of the Trump administration’s attempt to strip protections for migratory birds. From ocelots to polar bears, to the Endangered Species Act itself, Interior has done more in the last four years to hurt wildlife and undermine the laws to protect them from any other recent administration. Downlisting and delisting species to suggest that the Interior Department is improving the conservation of wildlife and its habitats is in stark contrast to the realities of science and the policies it has approved and promoted. 

We aren’t fooled, and neither is the American public. 

Jamie Rappaport Clark is the president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife. She previously served as the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1997-2001.