Rate of new endangered species listings declines under Trump

Rate of new endangered species listings declines under Trump
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The rate of listing new endangered and threatened species has slowed under the Trump administration, a trend that highlights an administrative push to shrink the number of animals ultimately placed on the endangered species list.

Nearing the end of Trump’s third year in office, the president has finalized just 21 species for federal protections, less than a third of the number finalized under former President Obama during the same time period and fewer than previous Republican presidents.

During the same time period, from his Inauguration Day to the Dec. 1 nearly three years later, Obama listed 71 species. Before him, former President George W. Bush listed 25 and President George H.W. Bush listed 146, according to public figures collected by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD.)

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Environmentalists and conservationists assert that the drop in listings under Trump is an indicator of the administration's tight relationship with industry, preferring to keep species delisted rather than protected.

“I think that it is related to an antipathy in the Trump administration for protecting endangered species or for environmental protections all together,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the CBD.

The administration does not reject that it favors fewer listings under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a law codified in 1973 to act as a last ditch effort to save diminishing plant and animal species. Recent moves have indicated a desire to place less weight on the ESA and to give protections provided under it less weight as well. 

The Trump administration in August finalized a controversial rollback of protections for endangered species that included allowing economic factors to be weighed before adding an animal to the list. That could include how protecting a species or its habitat might hinder the operations of the oil and gas industry, foresters and many other operations that work on or near federal lands.

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which handles the listings, says that under Trump the priority is to stop listings from occurring in the first place, arguing that the endangered species list alone is not an accurate indicator of federal action being taken for species protection.

“The differences with this administration is the reliance of proactive conservation work," said Gavin Shire, FWS chief of public affairs. "There’s an emphasis on looking at species in decline and stopping them from ever getting on the endangered species list."

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The FWS did not dispute the CBD numbers.

“Putting the species on the list is not in and of itself a goal or a measure of success," Shire said. "In fact, it’s a measure of failure."

Under the law, the FWS must investigate whether a species listing is warranted when a group or individual petitions for its listing under the ESA. 

Shire said that under Trump, FWS has been more proactive in engaging with industry and other stakeholders about struggling species in order to come to an agreement on best methods to thwart listing. He said those actions cannot be depicted in raw data.

“It’s better for the species and far more cost effective to activate partners, whether they be state or private or a [nongovernmental organization] to do proactive measures,” Shire said.

“So there have been many species we’ve been able to come up with ‘not warranted’ findings because of those proactive efforts," he continued.

Another reason why the numbers of previous administrations might be higher, Shire said, is because they were sifting through a backlog of species that were already designated as “warranted” for a listing, but had not been finalized.

Under Trump, most of that backlog was already cleared, Shire said, so instead, the administration focused on “fresh petitions,” which were largely unwarranted. He also said the department under Trump found that nearly 75 percent of all petitions were not warranted for ESA listing under guidelines.

However, Greenwald argued that there still remain many species on the petition list which have not been prioritized for review, a trend he expects to continue.

“The reason that FWS has only listed 21 species is the administration’s opposition to protecting endangered species, not to mention our air, water, climate and land,” he said.

“The Obama and Clinton administrations also processed a lot of negative findings, but still managed to list 360 and 523 species, respectively," he added.