The Trump administration on Monday finalized changes to provisions of the U.S. Endangered Species Act it says will streamline the decades-old wildlife protection law but which conservation groups say will threaten at-risk species.
The 1970s-era Act is credited with bringing back from the brink of extinction species such as bald eagles, gray whales and grizzly bears, but the law has long been a source of frustration for drillers, miners and other industries because new listings can put vast areas of land off-limits to development.
The weakening of the Act’s protections is one of many moves by U.S. President Donald Trump, a Republican, to roll back existing regulations to hasten oil, gas and coal production, as well as grazing, ranching and logging on federal land.
The changes would end a practice that automatically conveys the same protections for threatened species as for endangered species, and would strike language that guides officials to ignore economic impacts of how animals should be safeguarded. The original Act protected species regardless of the economics of the area protected.
“The revisions finalized with this rulemaking fit squarely within the President’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals,” U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said in a statement.
The changes were announced by the Interior Department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
Conservationists and environmentalists said they would challenge the revised law in court.
“These changes crash a bulldozer through the Endangered Species Act’s lifesaving protections for America’s most vulnerable wildlife,” Noah Greenwald, the Center for Biological Diversity’s endangered species director, said in a statement.
“For animals like wolverines and monarch butterflies, this could be the beginning of the end,” Greenwald said.
According to the revision, the Fish and Wildlife Service would need to write separate rules for each threatened species, slowing their protection until conditions worsen. Previously, threatened species, which account for 20% of listed species under the Act, would receive the same automatic protections as endangered species, according to the liberal Center for American Progress policy research organization.
“Ending this practice … would strain the resources of USFWS and NMFS, costing managers valuable time before they can take action to protect a species,” said Kate Kelly, the organization’s public lands director.
The revised rules will also prohibit designation of critical habitat for species threatened by climate change, the Center for Biological Diversity said. Trump rejects mainstream climate science and agencies such as the Interior Department have stopped weighing climate impacts in their regulations.
Some lawmakers from Western states and free market conservation groups applauded the changes, seeing them as helping states and landowners. Wyoming Republican Senator John Barrasso said the revision was a good first step but Congress should also reform the Endangered Species Act.
“We must modernize the Endangered Species Act in a way that empowers states, promotes the recovery of species, and allows local economies to thrive,” Barrasso said.
(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; editing by Grant McCool)