The Trump administration’s extinction agenda

The Endangered Species Act has many success stories, but the Interior Department’s new rules could change that

Hannah Rider
Westwise
5 min readAug 14, 2019

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Bald Eagle | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

On Monday, the Trump administration announced changes to weaken enforcement of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA, signed into law in 1973 by President Richard Nixon, protects animals and plants that are nearing extinction. Through preserving habitat, mitigating conflicts, and other mechanisms, the ESA is one of the nation’s bedrock environmental laws and has prevented the extinction of 99% of species that have been listed. The bald eagle, the national emblem of the United States, is one of the many species that has benefitted and recovered as a result of the protections from this law.

Here’s a look at the ESA’s track record and some of the animals whose success stories could have been derailed by the new rules proposed by Trump’s Interior Department.

Grizzly Bear family in Glacier National Park | National Park Service

Weakening protection for threatened species

In a major change, the Interior Department will weaken protections for species listed as “threatened.” Previously, species designated as threatened and those listed as endangered were offered similar levels of protection, a policy that had been in place since 1978. Now, staff at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will face the daunting task of crafting lesser protections for each individual threatened species, increasing workload and creating uncertainty for stakeholders around the country. The result will likely be a patchwork of weaker protections for species already on the decline.

The grizzly bear is an example of a species that recovered due to the strong protections for threatened species. While never listed as endangered, grizzly bears suffered significant population declines due to hunting prior to their designation. A recovery plan that banned hunting was key to their rebound. If the recovery plan for grizzlies had been subject to the new proposed rules, it is possible that hunting could have continued, and likely resulted in the continued decline of the species.

San Joaquin Kit Fox | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Reducing protections for critical habitat

The new rules change the interpretations of key phrases and words, which sounds like minor tinkering, but will have major impacts when enforcing the ESA. For example, the agency is changing the definition of “critical habitat,” to exclude places that are suitable for, or had once been inhabited by, an imperiled species. In effect, this will lead to smaller areas of protected habitat for recovering species.

In California, the San Joaquin Kit Fox is threatened because of encroachment of urban development on its habitat. The ESA has protected these animals from falling to endangered status by attempting to maintain their existing habitat. If kit foxes were designated today, a smaller area would likely be designated as critical habitat, which could have pushed the species toward extinction.

Polar Bears | Trevor Bauer

Ignoring impacts of climate change

In another instance of semantics having major impacts on species, the new rules will change the definition of what can be considered potential impacts in the “foreseeable future,” allowing the agency to ignore the impacts of climate change. Hinting at how the administration will ignore climate science, Gary Frazer, associate director for endangered species at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told reporters, “We will look out into the future so far as we can reliably predict and not speculate.”

Polar bears have been the poster image of climate impacts for decades. Because of melting ice in the Arctic, their habitat is disappearing, causing a steep decline in their population. Under these new rules, as polar bears are pushed into new areas as their habitat melts, their new range may not be protected.

Sage-grouse | Bureau of Land Management

Calculating economic consequences

The ESA currently allows for only scientific data to be considered when deciding whether and how to protect species. After all, the law’s goal is to help species recover, which requires a straightforward, scientific approach that considers factors such as population change and habitat impacts. However, the new rules remove the clause that bars economic or other impacts from being referenced, instead allowing for estimated costs of protecting a species to be published. While the administration claims that economic factors related to the implementation of listing decisions will still not be directly considered, it cynically allows politicians to decry, and attempt to dismantle, protections for species they deem too expensive.

The sage-grouse is a bird native to the western United States, and it is considered an indicator species for the health of the expansive sagebrush ecosystem. Although the species is not yet listed under the ESA, it has experienced significant population decline as a result of development, particularly oil and gas drilling, in its habitat. Discarding a collaborative conservation plan from 2015, the Trump administration has opened up millions of acres of critical habitat to drilling and mining. Sage-grouse populations are at their lowest levels in a decade, and if they continue to decline, increased protection could be necessary for the survival of the species. However, it’s possible that by publishing a calculated assessment of the costs of protecting the sage-grouse, opponents could be successful in denying protections under the ESA.

With weaker ESA enforcement, these animals and countless others might not exist today. These changes mean that plants and animals threatened by development and climate change will not receive the protections they need, all for the sake of more drilling, mining, and development. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, has been attempting to dismantle the ESA throughout his entire career, a mission he’s now fulfilling. In addition to weakening ESA enforcement, the Interior Department under the Trump administration has advanced at least 21 policy changes that weaken wildlife protections.

At a time when human impacts, from climate change to habitat destruction, are pushing 1 million species to the brink of extinction, weakening the most successful wildlife conservation tool is irresponsible and destructive. Instead of accelerating the threats to vulnerable species, we should be protecting as much biodiversity as possible, before it is too late.

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Hannah Rider
Westwise

Policy and Research Associate | Center for Western Priorities | Denver, CO