America will long regret if the Trump administration succeeds in significantly weakening one of this nation’s premier environmental laws, threatening the existence of vulnerable species across the country.
Dramatic changes to the Endangered Species Act, due to take effect in less than 30 days, appear to be aimed at relieving what Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, has called the “unnecessary regulatory burden” posed by the act. The changes appear to pave the way for more mining, drilling and development while making it easier to take species off the endangered list and lowering protections for those listed as “threatened.”
Passed in 1973 with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, the landmark Endangered Species Act has done a remarkable job of achieving its goals. President Richard Nixon, in signing the bill, said that “nothing is more priceless and worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.”
The act has been instrumental in saving animal and plant species that otherwise would have faced extinction through man-made degradation of their habitats, including the very symbol of this nation, the bald eagle. Poisoned by use of the chemical DDT, faced with polluted and shrinking habitats, the bald eagle was on the verge of extinction.
Even aided by the strongest federal protections ever passed, it took 35 years for it to claw its way back. It is now a resounding success story. In Minnesota, strong recovery allowed the bald eagle to actually expand its range, with the state now exporting a few eagle chicks a year to other states still attempting to restore their populations. Other recovering species include the American crocodile and the whooping crane to the gray wolf and Aleutian Canada goose.
Off the endangered list since 2007, the bald eagle shows what can be done when a nation chooses to save rather than destroy. But there many more species in need of such protections. In Minnesota, the moose may soon be among those as the climate of its northern range warms and habitat is jeopardized. Moose populations in Minnesota have plummeted more than 60% in the last decade, said Collette Adkins, carnivore conservation director and senior attorney in Minneapolis for the Center for Biological Diversity. She fears the new rules could squelch efforts to get those protections, in part because they do not permit climate change to be a factor in determining endangered or threatened status.
In another dramatic shift, the new rules would for the first time include the economic impact of listing a species — including the cost of lost or diminished development. Don Arnosti, executive director of the Izaak Walton League in Minnesota, said that “will add to the political pressures to avoid applying the Endangered Species Act.” The rules limiting the consideration of future climate change on habitat, he said, could hit Minnesota hard because the state is due to experience “dramatic effects.”
Minnesota has a strong track record of environmental protection, recognizing that a healthy environment, in which native species flourish, is good for everyone. Even now it is working to get the lake sturgeon under federal protection. The Great Lakes once bristled with this ancient breed of fish, but their numbers are now vanishingly small from overfishing and destruction of habitat. Under the old rules, it would have been a strong candidate for protection, Adkins said. She said she remains optimistic, in part because a number of groups intend to challenge the new rules in court.
Adkins, along with many others, say the changes are unwarranted. “There is a big myth out there that protections stop development,” she said. “But that seldom happens. Far more typical is that some very common sense mitigation measures are taken that allow the development to go forward while protecting species. Private landowners are offered incentives for participating,” she said.
According to a recent United Nations report, more than 1 million species are at risk of extinction worldwide and the major drivers are man-made: deforestation, overfishing, climate change, pollution and invasive species.
The need for stronger protections, not weaker, should be obvious. Adkins sums it up well: “People really care about this,” she said. “That we have wild places. We should be doubling our efforts to stem the extinction crisis, in part because if these animals can’t make it, these environments are diminished for us as well, and people get that.”