The US federal government has announced an overhaul of the way it enforces the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a law credited with preventing countless extinctions, despite the fact that Congress has stipulated that economic costs not be a factor in deciding whether to protect an animal.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist, said the changes are ‘improvements to the implementing regulations of the ESA designed to increase transparency and effectiveness and bring the administration of the Act into the 21st century.’
Bernhardt said the changes would allow the law to “ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal – recovery of our rarest species,” but environmentalists challenge that assertion.
“Americans don’t want to see the world’s animals and plants ride some political roller coaster,” said New Jersey environmentalist Lisa McCormick. “We must stop anti-environment politicians from undermining the law and causing irreparable harm to our wildlife and permanently alter ecosystems.”
Trump officials say the new plan will reduce regulations, but environmental groups warn it will “crash a bulldozer” through the landmark 1973 legislation and at least ten state attorneys general plan to sue over the new rules.
The plan removes automatic protections for threatened species and allows economic factors to be considered, but critics say the new rules will speed extinction for vulnerable wildlife.
Brett Hartl, a government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity conservation group, said the Trump administration is likely to attach an inflated price tag that could be “an invitation for political interference” in the government’s decision whether to save a species.
“You have to be really naive and cynical and disingenuous to pretend” otherwise, Hartl said. “That’s the reason that Congress way back…prohibited the Service from doing that,” Hartl said. “It’s a science question: Is a species going extinct, yes or no?”
The ESA, which Republican President Richard Nixon signed into law in 1973, protects more than 1,600 plant and animals species today, and is credited with saving the California condor, the Florida manatee, the gray whale and grizzly bear among others.
In its more than 45-year history, the ESA has catalyzed countless conservation partnerships that have helped recover some of America’s most treasured animals and plants from the bald eagle to the American alligator.
The Holocene extinction, often referred to as the sixth mass extinction, is an ongoing event resulting in the death of species during the current epoch as a consequence of human activity.
Scientists working for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that over 28,000 species worldwide are facing the risk of extinction in the wild.
“This effort to gut protections for endangered and threatened species has the same two features of most Trump administration actions: it’s a gift to industry, and it’s illegal. We’ll see the Trump administration in court about it,” Drew Caputo, a vice president of litigation for the conservation advocacy group Earthjustice.
A United Nations report warned in May that more than 1 million plants and animals globally face extinction, some within decades, owning to human development, climate change and other threats. The report called the rate of species loss a record.
In Washington state, Ray Entz, wildlife director for the Kalispel tribe, spoke of losing the struggle to save the last wild mountain caribou in the lower 48 states, despite the creature’s three decades on the Endangered Species List.
With logging and other human activities and predators driving down the numbers of the south Selkirk caribou, Canadian officials captured and penned the last surviving members of the species over the winter and pinned them up for their protection.
“There were some tears shed,” Entz said, of the moment when tribal officials realized the animal had dwindled in the wild past the point of saving. “It was a tough pill to swallow.”
Despite the disappearance of the protected caribou species from the contiguous United States, Entz said, “We don’t want to see a weakening of the law.”
“There’s times where hope is something you don’t even want to talk about,” he said. But, “having the Endangered Species Act gives us the opportunity to participate in that recovery.”
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