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Trump administration introduces proposal to roll back Endangered Species Act protections

Trump administration introduces proposal to roll back Endangered Species Act protections
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The Trump administration is proposing significant changes to the way it enforces the Endangered Species Act (ESA), saying they are a needed modernization of decades-old regulations, but wildlife groups say the changes will put endangered animals and plants at risk.

The proposal would make it easier to delist an endangered species and would withdraw a policy that offered the same protections for threatened species as for endangered species unless otherwise specified.

It would streamline interagency consultations and make it more difficult to protect habitat near land where endangered species live.

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The proposed rules also include an interpretation that a species considered endangered would be protected for a “foreseeable future” that extends “only as far” as it can be reasonably determined that “both the future threats and the species’ responses to those threats are probable.”

In a call with stakeholders on Thursday, Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Deputy Director Greg Sheehan called the proposal a way of “providing clarity.”

He said the changes would help the agency meet the Endangered Species Act’s main goal of “species recovery” so that animals and plants could more easily be removed from endangered and threatened species lists.

The move to change the act reflects demands from industry groups and landowners who frequently challenge endangered species protections as overbearing and unsuccessful. Critics of the law have argued that only 3 percent of all species placed on the endangered list have ever been delisted.

Republicans have also pushed for more management at the state level.

Supporters of the law have argued that the main goal of the Endangered Species Act should be to make sure that a species does not go extinct. Wildlife and conservation groups have often pushed for plant and animal species to remain listed to ensure they continue to receive increased habitat protections.

Sheehan, the former head of Utah’s wildlife agency, echoed some of the concerns raised by industry groups and landowners.

“When ESA has done its job and a species is no longer at risk for extinction, it should be delisted,” he said.

He also argued that when a species cannot be delisted easily, it can take resources away from species that need more protections.

“When some of our listing decisions have been challenged, courts have sometimes appeared to set a higher bar for removing a species from a list than putting it on — that takes valuable resources away from species that do need that determination under the act,” he said.

A key issue under the proposal would involve changing the way threatened species are protected under the law, weakening a rule in place for decades that gave threatened species on private land the same protections as endangered species.

The new rule — which was first reported in April — would instead allow for more limited or “tailored” protections for threatened species — a change that environmentalists are calling a major roll-back.

Endangered species are plants and animals at the brink of extinction, while threatened species are likely to become endangered in the near future. Sheehan says that codifying the rule would make it more “predictable.”

Another proposal centers on quickening the consultation process between other federal agencies — such as the Department of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers — and the Interior Department on whether planned projects may affect protected plants and animals.

Officials want to explore an “alternative” or “expedited” consultation process, such as completing one consultation for an entire program instead of multiple ones for various pieces of the program.

Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt told reporters on a call Thursday that the revision to consultations would be one of the biggest benefits of the proposed rule.

“I really think when the public goes through these proposals ... that they will see a very serious effort to lay out innovative ideas regarding improving the current interagency consultation process,” he said. “We have some ideas on alternatives to traditional consultation while maintaining the services’ respective roles in those processes.”

Environmentalists and animal conservationists pushed back on the package of changes to the ESA, saying the proposed efforts would ultimately weaken animal protections and benefits industry.

“This proposal turns the extinction-prevention tool of the Endangered Species Act into a rubber stamp for powerful corporate interests,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Allowing the federal government to turn a blind eye to climate change will be a death sentence for polar bears and hundreds of other animals and plants.”

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, called the proposed rule a favor to industry.

"The Trump administration doesn’t seem to know any other way to handle the environment than as an obstacle to industry profits," he said Thursday in a statement. "If a single company can make a single dollar from the destruction or displacement of an endangered species, it’s full speed ahead. The public doesn’t demand this; this is part of the endless special favors the White House and Department of the Interior are willing to do for their industry friends."

The proposal comes as the Trump administration and congressional Republicans are beefing up opposition to animal protections across the board.

In May the National Park Service announced it would end an Obama-era protection that prohibited the hunting of bear cubs, as well as wolves and pups in their dens, in Alaska’s national preserves.

In April, FWS employees were told they could no longer advise land developers when they would need to apply for a special permit necessary to maintain endangered species' habitats.

An April 26 letter from Sheehan told staff that it should be left up to builders to decide whether they would need to apply for the permit, which is mandated under the law for those who think their actions may affect the habitat of endangered species.

The House this week passed a spending bill that includes a number of riders aimed at rolling back certain species protections. One of the riders that made it through mandates that any species that is not reviewed by the FWS every five years will be automatically delisted.

Updated at 3:32 p.m.