Energy & Environment

Latest Trump proposal on endangered species could limit future habitat, critics say

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A new proposal from the Trump administration that defines habitat under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) would limit the areas species will have to recover, critics say.

An advance copy of the proposal from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) that was obtained by The Hill writes that habitats are “the physical places that individuals of a species depend upon to carry out one or more life processes. Habitat includes areas with existing attributes that have the capacity to support individuals of the species.” 

When species are endangered, the ESA requires the government to set aside habitat deemed critical for its recovery.

But environmental groups say the new definition being proposed by FWS will allow the agency to block setting aside any land that isn’t currently habitat but might be needed in the future, particularly as the climate changes.

“It sounds kind of innocuous,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, “But what this essentially says is if an area is degraded, if it can no longer support endangered species without restoration, then it couldn’t be protected.”

Take the northern spotted owl, an endangered species that nests in old-growth forest. Its protected habitat includes millions of acres of new-growth forest that are not in use by the owls currently, but could be as they age.

“The purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to help endangered species flourish and expand back into their former habitats. If this rule were in place fifty years ago, the bald eagle would have been kept at death’s door in perpetuity, limited to a few square miles here and there. If this administration can’t tell the difference between where an endangered species lives today and where it would live if it were no longer endangered, it has no business rewriting this or any other law,” House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.)

The proposal from FWS stems from a 2018 Supreme Court ruling challenging habitat for the dusky gopher frog.

“The court’s ruling provides the Trump Administration and [Interior] Secretary [David] Bernhardt the opportunity to create a new definition that will help ensure that all areas considered for critical habitat first and foremost meet the definition of habitat. We are proposing these changes on behalf of improved conservation and transparency in our processes for designating critical habitat,” FWS Director Aurelia Skipwith said in a release obtained by The Hill.

Habitat set aside for the frog, which includes pine forests, was challenged by Weyerhaeuser Co., a large logging company.

Greenwald said the area set aside for the frog’s recovery otherwise had the unique elements, including ephemeral ponds, needed by the species.

But he sees longer-term impacts if the proposed language is adopted, particularly as climate change wipes out existing habitat and transforms the landscape. 

“Take species threatened by sea level rise created by climate change. Areas they need for survival and recovery in the future may not be habitat right now,” Greenwald said, pointing to coastal wetlands used by birds and other species that will gradually migrate. 

“But this rule will totally preclude that.”

Friday’s proposal is the second major action the Trump administration has taken that critics say will weaken the ESA.

Last August the administration finalized a rule that dramatically scales back America’s landmark conservation law, limiting protections for threatened species and how factors like climate change can be considered in listing decisions. The rule also limits the review process used before projects are approved on their habitat. 

Suits over that rule are still working their way through the courts.

However, the Trump administration changes have been popular with some in the West, who argue the protections can delay or block important projects.

“The Trump administration is making the Endangered Species Act work better for people and wildlife,” Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee Chair John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said in a release on the latest proposal. 

“By providing clearly defined terms, efforts to protect species can be more focused and more effective. This proposal will provide commonsense protections for endangered species without expanding beyond the habitat they actually depend on.”

But Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, said the latest proposal doesn’t “meet the intent of the Endangered Species Act, which recognizes that areas beyond those that are currently occupied may need to be protected to recover species,” adding the rule will “exclude areas that would be suitable with minimal restoration or those areas that may be needed to recover species in the age of climate change.”

—Update at 3:58 p.m.

Tags Center for Biological Diversity Defenders of Wildlife Endangered species Endangered Species Act Environmental conservation habitat loss John Barrasso wildlife habitat
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