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On August 12th, the Trump Administration issued crucial changes to the Endangered Species Act, which — if implemented next month — will affect both people and wildlife. Critics of the new measures, announced by the Fish and Wildlife Service, say the changes weaken protections for many species, and potentially open up huge areas of land for oil and gas development, even as carbon dioxide emissions continue to heat the planet.
The Endangered Species Act was created in 1973 under President Nixon with bipartisan support to help conserve wildlife at risk of extinction because of human activity. Since then, it’s been credited with preventing the eradication of 99 percent of the 1,650 species it has guarded. The latest changes to the law place many species’ survival at risk, conservationists contend.
“The law is extremely successful and has helped in the recovery of species like the bald eagle over the last 40 years. And so we should allow it to work instead of crippling it,” Kirin Kennedy, deputy legislative director for public lands and wildlife protection at Sierra Club, told The Verge.
The changes make it harder to argue that climate change poses a risk to a species’ survival, which is particularly alarming given a recent United Nations report that found that up to a million species face extinction thanks to human activity including burning fossil fuels. Another change weakens protections for species listed as threatened — the step below endangered — in the future. Currently, all threatened species have most of the same protections as endangered species under the law. But soon, protections for each threatened species listed in the future could instead be assessed on a case-by-case basis. On top of that, regulators can now consider how much it might cost to protect a species as decisions are made on which will make the list.
But there are also ramifications for humans and the planet if the Endangered Species Act is weakened. By making it easier to kick species off the list of officially endangered and threatened wildlife, land that was once off limits is likely to become fair game for digging up more fossil fuels that contribute to pollution and climate change.
Critics of the act have long contended that it stymies economic development by shutting industry out of resource-rich places that happen to be home to endangered or threatened species. The American Petroleum Institute said in a statement that it “welcomed” the new changes. US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said in another statement, “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.”
Environmental advocates including organizations like the Sierra Club and Washington State Governor Jay Inslee (who has positioned himself as the climate candidate in the Democratic primary race), meanwhile, are singing another tune.
“Weakening the #EndangeredSpecies Act is all about making it easier to mine for coal and drill for oil,” Inslee tweeted Monday. “So this isn’t just bad for the bald eagle or the grizzly bear — it’s bad for our kids and their health.”
Sierra Club’s Kirin Kennedy told The Verge, “Lack of clean air due to pollution put out by extractive industries means lack of clean air for human populations as well. So what the Endangered Species Act does in providing protections for wildlife have an upstream impact on humans.”
Some humans will feel that impact sooner than others. “Indigenous people were at the forefront of the struggle to preserve [Endangered Species Act] protections for the sacred grizzly bear,” Tom Rodgers, vice president of the Global Indigenous Council and senior advisor to the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, told The Verge in an email. Attempts at prematurely removing species from the endangered and threatened species list, according to Rodgers, “are ‘Trojan Horses’ to tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, and religious freedoms.”
The Blackfoot Confederacy, which includes Piikani Nation, the Blackfeet Nation, the Siksika Nation, and the Blood Tribe, have fought a decade-long battle to protect Yellowstone’s grizzly bears under the Endangered Species Act. Earlier this summer, they were successful: the US Fish and Wildlife Service was forced to comply with a judge’s orders to reinstate grizzlies as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
They dodged a bullet by beating the recently announced rule change — the threatened grizzlies will still be afforded most protections available under the current Endangered Species Act. But other species listed in the future might be affected by the contentious new measure. The rule change is already slated to be challenged in court by the attorneys general of California and Massachusetts. If those challenges go ahead, they would join a long list of other environmental challenges to the Trump administration’s policies working their way through the courts, including a massive lawsuit challenging the rollback of the Obama-era plan to clean up power plant emissions. Kennedy also tells The Verge that the Sierra Club is considering its legal options in defending the Endangered Species Act.
“Our precious wildlife and ecosystems are in critical danger. By rolling back the Endangered Species Act the Trump Administration would be putting a nail in our coffin – all for the sake of boosting the profits of those putting these species at risk in the first place,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a press release. “We’re ready to fight to preserve this important law – the species with whom we share this planet, and depend on, deserve no less.”