The US government is making drastic changes to how the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is applied. The revisions weaken protections for threatened species, and will allow federal agencies to conduct economic analyses when deciding whether to protect a species.
The changes, finalized by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service on 12 August, are among the most sweeping alterations to the law since it was enacted in 1973. Trump officials say the new plan will reduce regulations, but environmental groups warn it will “crash a bulldozer” through the landmark 1973 legislation. The plan removes automatic protections for threatened species and allows economic factors to be considered. Critics say the new rules will speed extinction for vulnerable wildlife. Ten state attorneys general have announced plans to sue over the new regulation. The Endangered Species Act, 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.
What’s in the new regulation?
The new rules, which go into effect in 30 days, will for the first time allow economic factors to be considered when weighing what protections should be provided to vulnerable species. Under current law, wildlife management decisions are only allowed to be based on science and “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of determination”. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist, announced the change, saying the change allowed the law to “ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal – recovery of our rarest species,” he said.
“An effectively administered act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation.”
Limits to protections
Chief among the changes is the removal of blanket protections for threatened animals and plants.
Until now, any species deemed threatened — a category for organisms at risk of becoming endangered — by the FWS automatically has received the same protections as endangered species. They include bans on killing threatened and endangered species. Now, those protections will be determined on a case-by-case basis, a move which will likely reduce overall protections for species that are added to the threatened list, says Hartl.
The revisions also narrow the scope of those protections. Previously, government officials considered threats that would affect a species in the “foreseeable future”, such as climate change. Now, they have leeway to determine the time period meant by the foreseeable future, and can only consider threats that are “likely” to occur in that time frame. Critics say that this weaker language could allow regulators to ignore threats from climate change, such as rising sea levels, because their effects might not be felt for decades. And in a third change to the ESA, the Trump administration removed language explicitly prohibiting the consideration of the economic impacts of listing a species. However, the FWS will continue to rely only on the best available science when determining whether a species should be listed, said Gary Frazer, the assistant director for endangered species at FWS, in a press call.
The changes to the ESA are expected to be published in the US government’s Federal Register this week. They will take effect 30 days after publication.