Trump Admin Guts Endangered Species Act in the Midst of Climate Crisis and Biodiversity Loss
The Trump administration announced sweeping changes to the Endangered Species Act Monday in a move that could make it harder to protect plants and animals from the climate crisis, The New York Times reported.
The changes would make it easier to remove species from the list, end the blanket rule giving threatened species the same protections as endangered ones, allow regulators to assess the economic impacts of protecting a species and give the government major leeway in how it interprets the phrase “foreseeable future.” This last change is relevant to species threatened by the climate crisis, since many of its effects may be decades away.
Interior Secretary and former energy lobbyist David Bernhardt claimed the changes would increase transparency.
“The act’s effectiveness rests on clear, consistent and efficient implementation,” he said in a statement reported by The New York Times.
But conservation groups disagreed. They pointed to a major biodiversity study released this spring warning that one million species could go extinct due to human activity.
“We’re facing an extinction crisis, and the administration is placing industry needs above the needs of our natural heritage,” Natural Resources Defense Council Nature Program legal director Rebecca Riley said in a statement.
The Endangered Species Act has saved 99 percent of listed species from extinction, according to HuffPost. Notable successes include the bald eagle, Yellowstone grizzly bear and humpback whale, but scientists warn that the new rules could prevent the act from performing similar rescues in the future. Take the North American wolverine, which the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is deciding whether or not to protect. The cold-loving mammal could lose a third of its U.S. range by 2050 and two thirds before 2100 due to rising temperatures, The Guardian reported.
“The current science suggests that a warming climate is most likely going to have an adverse impact on the wolverine,” Jeff Copeland, a retired Forest Service biologist who now works with the Wolverine Foundation, told The Guardian. “That’s the debate that needed to happen.”
But, because of the Trump administration’s changes to the interpretation of “foreseeable future,” it likely won’t.
Environmental groups are also concerned by the removal of language saying protection decisions must be made “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of determination.”
FWS assistant director for endangered species Gary Frazer told The New York Times that the language was only being removed to allow economic impact assessments to be conducted for informational reasons. He said they would not inform protection decisions.
But conservation groups mistrusted the language change. The only reason for writing economic impact reports, Obama-era Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes told HuffPost, is to “poison the well and obtain a sort of public reaction to the listing.”
Drew Caputo, vice president of litigation for lands, wildlife and oceans at Earthjustice, agreed the language removal was dangerous.
As a former lobbyist for the oil and gas industry, Bernhardt is continuing his role as the fossil fuel industry’s liaison to the government. Earthjustice has tracked Bernhardt’s record of industry-favoring deregulation that directly — and often illegally — harms protected species.
When his predecessor, Ryan Zinke, left the top spot at the Interior in 2017, Earthjustice sounded the alarm about the people Bernhardt really represents:
Bernhardt, who became Deputy Secretary of the Interior in August 2017, is “a walking conflict of interest” who served as the Interior Department’s top lawyer under George W. Bush — and went on to a lucrative career as a legal adviser for timber companies, mining companies, and oil and gas interests. Since returning to the Interior Department under Trump, he has quietly implemented policy decisions that benefit his former corporate polluter clients.
Before rising to secretary, he was a key connector between polluting industries and a department charged with overseeing public lands:
A former top lobbyist for the oil and gas industry at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, Bernhardt has an ex-client list that reads like a who’s-who of deep-pocketed dirty polluter interests: Halliburton, Statoil, Noble Energy, and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, among several others. He used the infamous revolving door to push polluters’ agendas as a lobbyist, previously working to scrap protections for endangered species while in the Bush administration.
Today, Bernhardt is working behind the scenes — often after secret meetings with special interests — to benefit many of the same companies and industry allies who he once represented and who stand to profit from the Trump-Zinke agenda. He sees endangered species and national monuments as little more than roadblocks to energy extraction, as his recent Washington Post op-ed shows.
Many cuts to animal protections proposed under Bernhardt have directly benefited his former clients, at the risk of extinction for endangered species:
Another former client, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, benefited when Bernhardt oversaw proposed revisions to agreements for the management of sage grouse habitat across 10 Western states. The revisions eliminate protections for the imperiled bird in favor of petroleum development. And while the sage grouse is not listed as endangered, it has been protected by the Endangered Species Act, a law that Bernhardt has been dead set against since his time as the Interior Department’s Solicitor General in the early 2000s. Bernhardt has continued his campaign against the Endangered Species Act since returning to the Interior Department, with proposals to allow regulators to consider the economic impacts in decisions about listing particular species, rather than just looking at available science. In a Washington Post op-ed authored by Bernhardt, he calls for “creative, incentive-based conservation” to bring “our government’s implementation of the Endangered Species Act into the 21st century.
“There can be economic costs to protecting endangered species,” Caputo told The New York Times. “If we make decisions based on short-term economic costs, we’re going to have a whole lot more extinct species.”
Earthjustice has already promised to sue over the changes, according to HuffPost, as have Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
“I know that gutting the Endangered Species Act sounds like a plan from a cartoon villain, not the work of the president of the United States,” Healey said during a press call reported by HuffPost. “But unfortunately that’s what we’re dealing with today.”
Sources: Ecowatch and Earthjustice