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Wildlife advocates fear Trump administration is de-clawing Endangered Species Act

A young western pond turtle.
A young western pond turtle. Fresno Bee Staff Photo

The marbled murrelet is a small seabird whose diminutive size belies a fierce imperative to survive. It soars over the waters of the northern Pacific Ocean, but will fly as far as 50 miles inland to nest in the old growth forests of Washington, Oregon and California.

Below, the western pond turtle, with its low and broad carapace, paddles in the placid waters of lakes, rivers and streams.

But both are in danger of disappearing as logging gradually destroys the old forest canopy, and pollution, predators and development foul water habitats.

Adding them to the Endangered Species Act has been a way to forestall the decline of animals and plants imperiled in an increasingly unforgiving environment. But the law that has been a bulwark against wildlife extinction for more than four decades could be undergoing changes that advocates worry will weaken its protections.

Currently, species listed as “threatened” via the ESA — such as the murrelet and the pond turtle — are granted the same safeguards as those that are considered “endangered.” The Trump administration has signaled it wants to prohibit that practice. It also would like to loosen regulations so that the economic impact of species protection could be a factor.

“Determinations based solely on biological considerations” would continue, the proposed revisions stated. “However, there may be circumstances where referencing economic, or other impacts may be informative to the public.”

Paula Swedeen, policy director for Conservation Northwest, a Seattle-based wildlife conservation group, said her group is not opposed to improving the Endangered Species Act. “But these don’t look they’re friendly changes,” she said. “They look like they’re designed to make it easier to avoid implementing the intention” of the act.

Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the water, oil and minerals industries, which are often at odds with the act, unveiled the proposed changes last month. Public comment is open until Sept. 24.

According to the rule changes, newly threatened species wouldn’t be automatically offered protections similar to endangered species. Instead, rules protecting them would be made more on a case-by-case basis. That could affect creatures such as the wolverine, which the Washington Department of of Fish and Wildlife has wanted to add to the “threatened” list. (The proposed changes to the ESA would apply only to new species added to the list, and wouldn’t be applied retroactively.)

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the Endangered Species Act in coordination with the National Marine Fisheries Service, wrote in the proposed revisions that it has tailored protection plans for specific species in attempts to both safeguard the threatened creatures and accommodate competing interests, such as landowners and developers.

“We have seen many benefits, including removing redundant permitting requirements, facilitating implementation of beneficial conservation actions, and making better use of our limited personnel and fiscal resources,” Fish and Wildlife stated in the revisions.

Agency spokesman Gavin Shire said the proposed changes are designed to codify how it has been administering the act in recent years. “The act itself cannot be changed, but we can change how we implement the act,” he said.

Fish and Wildlife also has asked for public comment on whether, under certain circumstances, it should lift the requirement that other federal agencies weighing whether to issue permits for activities like drilling or logging on public land must consult first with its experts to gauge the impact on the ecosystem.

Among the circumstances that might apply to that scenario would be that the activity seeking a permit “would result at most in an extremely small and insignificant impact on a listed species or critical habitat,” according to the proposed revisions.

To wildlife advocates, this opens the door, if even just a crack, for business and political interests to influence the decision making.

“Any time you weaken the consultation requirement between the services and other federal agencies, you essentially shift the burden over,” said Swedeen of Conservation Northwest. “They give action agencies more discretion in figuring out whether their activity will have a significant impact on a species, especially given that the current administration is not shy about saying they want to be able to do more logging, more oil exploration or more mineral exploration.”

The Trump administration already has begun to thin some of the safeguards. Last year it threw out rules that protected several species of endangered whales and sea turtles from getting ensnared in fishing nets because it said the industry’s own safety measures had produced good results.

The administration also has indicated that politicians should be heard on these decisions. An Interior Department memo last year about including representatives from the states in the decision making about species endangerment said one of them should be chosen by their governor.

The focus on the ESA coincides with a flurry of legislative attempts on Capitol Hill to cut recovery funds for some species, including the greater sage grouse, whose declining numbers are found in eastern Washington, and to block Fish and Wildlife from listing others.

Interior’s effort also is part of the administration’s policy to cut government regulations across the board and create a more business-friendly environment.

The tension between wildlife preservation and economics has been an ongoing feature of American life since Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973 under President Richard Nixon. Back then, it enjoyed bipartisan support. But over time, battles flared as business interests encountered roadblocks and argued that the survival of one species should not slow the nation’s economic engine.

“States, counties, wildlife managers, home builders, construction companies, farmers, ranchers, and other stakeholders are all making it clear that the Endangered Species Act is not working today,” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wy., said at a hearing last year.

Sarah Ryan, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, said her group welcomes the changes.

“We are generally happy with the steps the department has outlined as the existing ESA has recovered very few species and the current process for listing (up or down) of a species creates unnecessary burdens on ranchers, who are the ultimate environmentalists through their conservation practices,” she said in a statement.

That was echoed by Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit libertarian think tank, who called the law “a miserable failure at recovering endangered wildlife populations, but a tremendous success at imposing federal land-use controls that have violated landowners’ rights and thwarted economic activity.”

Bob Dreher, senior vice president for conservation at Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group which works “to protect and restore imperiled species,” said 99 percent of all species that have been placed on the endangered list remain alive.

He also noted that while just 85 of the 1,600 species classified as endangered have been de-listed — meaning they no longer need federal protections — “it takes time and effort to recover a species. It doesn’t get endangered overnight, but through decades of adverse impact, human development, disease and loss of habitat.”

In a recent report, Defenders of Wildlife found that the Endangered Species Act suffers from underfunding. It found that of the eligible species already listed, “nearly 25 percent lack final recovery plans; half of plans have taken more than five years to finalize after listing; half of recovery plans are more than 20 years old; and there is significant variation in planning between agencies, and among regions.”

Wildlife and environmental supporters say the country has an obligation to be a steward of the planet, and laud the act’s successes. They point to the restoration of the bald eagle, the whooping crane and the gray whale. They also argue that saving one plant or animal is never an end unto itself.

The marbled murrelet, for instance, which Washington, Oregon and California have all labeled as “threatened,” is an “indicator species,” said Lisa Remlinger, forest program director for the Washington Environmental Council, a nonprofit conservation group.

“Usually these issues are never just about one thing,” she said. “They’re about the greater ecological system as a whole. Often times these are good indicators for us of what else is going on.”

David Goldstein: 301-938-5808, @GoldsteinDavidJ