(Courthouse News) The Trump administration says its proposed revisions to the decades-old Endangered Species Act reduce regulatory burden, while conservationists call them a “massive attack” on vulnerable species that face mounting threats from climate change and development.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration on Thursday proposed sweeping changes to key sections of the 1973 law meant to protect certain plants and animals from harm and extinction.
Section 4(d) of the law, which has been in effect since 1975, directs the Service to issue regulations deemed “necessary and advisable to provide for the conservation of threatened species.”
But one of the Trump administration’s proposals would make it easier to remove “threatened” species from a listing of plants and animals under the law’s protection.
The law defines a threatened species as one that is likely to become extinct within the “foreseeable future.”
The agencies said in a statement Thursday their interpretation of “foreseeable future” would now extend “only as far as they can reasonably determine that both the future threats and the species’ responses to those threats are probable.”
About 70 species in California, 20 in Hawaii, and scores more fish, birds, mammals and plants around the country face the risk of losing special regulatory protections.
The wildlife under threat include southern sea otters, northern spotted owls, piping plovers, red knots, Yosemite toads, delta smelt, Santa Catalina Island foxes and gopher tortoises.
The proposed revision would also change how agencies designate certain areas as “critical habitats,” which conservationists said are essential to an endangered species’ survival.
While recognizing critical habitats as an essential conservation tool, the agencies said in the statement that, in some cases, “designation of critical habitat is not prudent.”
Conservation group the Center for Biological Diversity fired off its own statement Thursday pointing out that certain species rely heavily on those critical habitats to rebuild their populations.
According to the Center, the proposal ignores how the gradual trimming of critical habitat areas – what the conservationists called “death by a thousand cuts” – is the most common way wildlife accelerates toward extinction.
“If we are going to save wildlife, we have to let them return to places they used to roam,” the Center’s government affairs director Brett Hartl said. “Denying imperiled wild animals that ability means they have no future.”
The agencies said the proposal is meant to align practices within the two organizations and ensure that each species’ protection guidelines are “tailored” to their needs.
The change will not affect protections for species currently listed as threatened.
The agencies said the proposed revisions incorporate input from a “robust, transparent public process” with stakeholders who said Endangered Species Act regulations were not consistent and “very confusing to navigate.”
“We are proposing these improvements to produce the best conservation results for the species while reducing the regulatory burden on the American people,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s deputy director Greg Sheehan said in the statement. “No two species are the same. We can tailor appropriate protections using best available science according to each species’ biological needs.”
Under the law, federal agencies have to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries to ensure their actions do not harm endangered or threatened species or destroy critical habitats.
The agencies said they would alter the consultation process by removing “redundant and confusing language” and changing how “biological opinions” are submitted during the review process.
The Center sees these changes as weakening the consultation process “designed to prevent harm to endangered animals and their habitats from federal agency activities.”
The proposals are part of a broader effort by Trump-appointed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to undercut protections for wildlife and public lands, the Center said.
“These proposals would slam a wrecking ball into the most crucial protections for our most endangered wildlife,” Hartl said. “If these regulations had been in place in the 1970s, the bald eagle and the gray whale would be extinct today. If they’re finalized now, Zinke will go down in history as the extinction secretary.”
Neither agency responded to requests for comment by press time.
Once the proposed changes are published in the Federal Register, the public will have 60 days to submit comments online.