Environmental groups sue Trump administration over Endangered Species Act changes

Environmental groups sue Trump administration over Endangered Species Act changes
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Some of the country’s largest environmental organizations have filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration challenging a new rule that could weaken protections for threatened and endangered species.

Eight environmental groups including the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a joint lawsuit with the Northern District of California on Wednesday challenging the Interior Department’s move to change the way species are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Changes rolled out last week by the agency include decreasing protections for threatened species and allowing the economic impacts of protecting species to be considered prior to making listing decisions.

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The Trump administration rule also changes how factors like climate change can be considered in listing decisions and the review process used before projects are approved on certain species' habitats.

Environmentalists say the regulatory tweaks will amount to a dramatic decrease in protection for plants and animals, arguing the changes were made largely to benefit industry groups and landowners.

“Nothing in these new rules helps wildlife, period. Instead, these regulatory changes seek to make protection and recovery of threatened and endangered species harder and less predictable. We’re going to court to set things right,” Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles said in a statement.

The lawsuit claims that the Trump administration failed to analyze how changes to the rule could impact species, a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act. Administration officials have been frequently critiqued for failing to explain how the rule change will help the recovery of species.

Additionally, the lawsuit argues that changes made in the final version of the rule were not included in the agency’s draft proposal, and therefore not made available to public comment — another legal violation.

Karimah Schoenhut, Sierra Club staff attorney, called the decision political.

"The new rules move the Endangered Species Act dangerously away from its grounding in sound science that has made the Act so effective – opening the door to political decisions couched as claims that threats to species are too uncertain to address," she said. 

"In the face of the climate crisis, the result of this abandonment of responsibility will be extinction."

An Interior Spokesperson called the lawsuit a way to "weaponize" the ESA and promised the agency would be "steadfast" in defending the rule change.

"It is unsurprising that those who repeatedly seek to weaponize the Endangered Species Act -- instead of use it as a means to recover imperiled species -- would choose to sue. We will see them in court, and we will be steadfast in our implementation of this important act with the unchanging goal of conserving and recovering species."

The Endangered Species Act was first passed in 1973 and is considered a success globally, surpassing protections for flora and fauna in many other countries. Environmentalists see it as one of America’s premier environmental laws.

But in the U.S it has been a target of industry groups and heavily criticized by some developers and lawmakers for working almost too well, making it difficult to encroach on habitat even after a species rebounds. Many would like for it to be easier to delist species.

Interior last week described the new regulation as a modernization of the act “designed to increase transparency and effectiveness and bring the administration of the Act into the 21st century.”