Conservationists are accusing the Trump administration of putting the interests of industry — including logging and grazing in the Pacific Northwest — ahead of the survival of the country’s most imperiled wild plants and animals.
The administration’s announced changes Monday to how the Endangered Species Act will be enforced by federal agencies set off waves of criticism, including vows by several states to challenge the move. Environmental groups also say they may sue to stop the new rules.
Several Oregon species currently being considered for listing under the ESA would be subject to the new rules.
In a release announcing the new rules, the Interior Department said the changes were "designed to increase transparency and effectiveness."
“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,” said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross in the release.
The rules, which are expected to be officially published soon and go into effect 30 days later, make changes to several regulatory areas:
The new rule removes blanket protections for "threatened" wildlife. Currently there is no significant difference in protections for non-marine wildlife listed as "threatened" versus those designated as "endangered." Those species listed as threatened would no longer be automatically protected. Instead conservation requirements will be decided on a "case by case" basis. This is the approach already used by the National Marine Fisheries Services, which administers the ESA for marine mammals and fish.
Species already listed as threatened will continue to be protected under the old rules. In the Pacific Northwest, these include the Oregon silverspot butterfly and spotted frog, Columbian white-tailed deer, northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet.
“This is going to create so much chaos,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The center is a lead petitioner for the listing of the Pacific marten and fisher, carnivorous animals related to mink that live in Oregon forests. Both are proposed for threatened status, and if approved, both would be subject to the new rules.
Curry says the listing proposal for the marten, released last fall, provided a window into the changes to come under these new rules. Instead of proposing blanket protections, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service exempted all forestry activity from changing their practices to protect martens. Habitat loss through logging and related activities are a significant contributor to declining marten populations.
“The fisher, if it’s proposed for listing as threatened … it’s probably going to be proposed with an [exemption] that doesn’t extend it any meaningful protections,” she said.
Protecting the habitat needed for threatened and endangered species will be more difficult. Under the ESA, critical habitat can be designated to ensure it can continue to support the listed species that depend on it.
The new rules shift how these critical habitat areas are prioritized.
Currently regulators can designate areas of a species’ historical range or suitable but unoccupied areas as critical habitat. The new rules say those areas can’t be considered until the present range of a species is evaluated.
Conservationists says this weakens a key tool for protecting listed species.
Rich Hatfield is a conservation biologist with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. He says flexibility to include unoccupied habitat when designating critical habitat for things like bees and butterflies is important.
“There’s just so much that’s unknown about a lot of our invertebrates, particularly our imperiled ones,” Hatfield said.
He said the changes will make it more difficult to designate unoccupied habitat as critical habitat.
“That is problematic because we often don’t even know where a lot of these animals are living or what habitat is essential for them. Being able to protect larger areas of land historically has been very important in helping animals recover and get back to their former population sizes,” he said.
The Xerces Society is lead petitioner on proposal, announced Monday by the USFWS, to list the Franklin’s bumblebee as endangered. The bumblebee was once common in the high-altitude meadows of Southern Oregon and Northern California, but the population crashed. The last Franklin’s bumblebee was seen in 2006.
Economic impacts will get more consideration than before. This, Hatfield said, will shift the scales, given more consideration to mining, logging, development, grazing and energy-drilling operations and placing less weight on what that means for a species' survival.
Currently the best available science is supposed to be the driving factor for decision-making. Now the two are on a more equal footing.
“Any time you open the door to economics you’re, in my experience, opening up a Pandora’s box,” said Hatfield. “This is going to make listing decisions much more challenging in the future. It’s going to be hard to get animals that dramatically need protection the protection they deserve."
Industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute and the Oregon-based American Forest Resources Council have supported changes to the Endangered Species Act. AFRC called the rule-making “long overdue” in public comment submitted early in the regulatory process.