Energy & Environment

Trump proposal would make it tougher to protect habitat for endangered species, critics say

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The Trump administration is proposing another measure that critics say will harm endangered species, proposing Friday to further weigh economic impacts before setting aside habitat that could aid their recovery.

The proposal from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) would change what the agency considers before designating new so-called critical habitat, a move that would give more weight to the financial impacts on the oil and gas industry, ranchers and even homeowners.

Environmentalists fear the rule would tilt the process to the favor of industry after the administration has already finalized a major rollback of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

“If this proposal and the others put forward by the Trump administration are allowed to stand, it will be death by a thousand cuts for endangered wildlife across the country. Critical habitat is just that — critical for species’ survival and recovery. In the face of mass extinction, and climate and health crises worsened by habitat destruction and loss of nature, it’s essential that we protect more habitat, not less,” the Sierra Club said in a statement.

Designating habitat as critical doesn’t bar development of a parcel of land, but it could lead to additional barriers or come with certain management requirements.

FWS is already required to consider the economic impacts before issuing a critical habitat designation, but the proposal would require them to accept assessments of that impact from industry.

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the Center for Biological Diversity, worries those figures could be inflated or at best speculative. He gave the example of a land owner who could argue a designation could interrupt their plans to build a resort, potentially costing them $50 million.

“They’re basically saying Fish and Wildlife will take people at their word of what the value of the designation will be and give weight to that,” he said.

The process would work similarly on federal lands that may already having grazing or oil and gas activity underway.

“It essentially gives priority to special interests who have economic stake in management of federal lands. This gives them an additional hook over the rest of us that all own those lands,” Greenwald said.

“The proposed regulations would provide greater transparency for the public, improve consistency and predictability for stakeholders affected by [endangered species] determinations and stimulate more effective conservation on the ground,” FWS Director Aurelia Skipwith said in a release. 

Publicizing the economic impacts of protecting endangered species was a key feature of last year’s rollback of the ESA, including 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.

And in July, FWS proposed a rule that would block the agency from protecting habitat for endangered species if the area is not currently ready to host them — something critics say ignores how climate change is impacting the environment and pushing migration of species.

That proposal spurred more Democratic pushback Friday in a letter signed by more than 100 lawmakers.

“We are alarmed by this proposed rule, especially in the context of the three regulations finalized last year that weakened ESA implementation. This onslaught of environmental rollbacks that threaten the survival of our nation’s wildlife must stop,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter spearheaded by House Natural Resources Chair Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.).

Lawmakers argue the rollbacks impeded the government’s ability “to conserve and restore important habitat based on the best available science for the recovery of ESA-listed species.”

Updated: 5:09 p.m.

Tags Critical habitat Endangered species

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