WASHINGTON — The US Interior Department announced significant changes Monday that would weaken how the Endangered Species Act is implemented, a move critics fear will allow for more oil and gas drilling and limit how much regulators consider the impacts of the climate crisis.
The regulations reflect the Trump administration’s latest move to overhaul the nation’s environmental frameworks — in this case, a law credited with saving the bald eagle and grizzly bear from extinction.
The overhaul changes how the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration consider whether species qualify for protections, as well as how the agencies determine what habitats deserve special protections. It could significantly lengthen how long it takes for a species to become protected, which could further endanger them, but the Trump administration says it allows the focus to be on the “rarest species.”
“The best way to uphold the Endangered Species Act is to do everything we can to ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal — recovery of our rarest species,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement Monday. “An effectively administered Act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation.”
The final rule was panned by environmental groups that question Bernhardt’s motives, given his past work representing oil and gas companies.
“This effort to gut protections for endangered and threatened species has the same two features of most Trump administration actions: it’s a gift to industry, and it’s illegal. We’ll see the Trump administration in court about it,” Drew Caputo, Earthjustice vice president of litigation for lands, wildlife, and oceans. said in a statement. Other environmental groups and some states are also expected to sue.
One million species are threatened by human activity, according to a United Nations report earlier this year. Shrinking habitat, exploitation of natural resources, climate change and pollution are the main drivers of species loss and are threatening more than 40% of amphibians, 33% of coral reefs and over a third of all marine mammals with extinction, the report states.
“The climate crisis underlies so much of the extinction crisis,” but the rule could make it more difficult to use the climate data to protect species in the US, said Rebecca Riley, legal director of the nature program for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“They’re trying to narrow the evidence we can consider and narrow the scope of time we’re going to be projecting the impact on these species … limit the forward-looking data,” like climate models, Riley said. “It’s very technical but they’re all designed to make it harder to protect species.”
Riley said the rule would also create an exemption to critical habitats that exist because of the results of the climate crisis such as sea level rise.
“It looks like they’re trying to say, if you are a sea- ice dependent species we’re not going to protect that sea ice habitat as critical habitat,” she said.
Gary Frazer, the assistant director for endangered species at the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the change in the rule is needed because longer-term models can change.
“We also are clear that we’re continuing to make listing determinations as directed by the statute solely on the basis of the best available scientific information and without consideration for the economic impacts,” Frazer said.
Frazer said that reliable data — including in areas such as land use planning — can only be developed “for the next 30 or 40 or 50 years.”
“When you start reaching out to 70 or 80 years, the confidence that anyone has in what the future — those future conditions are like starts to degrade significantly,” he said.