Yesterday (August 12), President Donald Trump’s administration announced changes to the way the Endangered Species Act will be enforced, making it easier to take species off of the endangered list and weakening safeguards for protected species.
The Endangered Species Act is a landmark law passed in 1973 and currently aims to protect 1,600 plants and animals from extinction. Success stories of enforcing the law include saving the gray whale, the grizzly bear, and the bald eagle—the national emblem of the United States.
The new enforcement guidelines curb the law’s ability to protect species by allowing regulators to do economic assessments—for example, estimating lost revenue of developing a critical habitat—when deciding whether or not to protect a species. The guidelines will also make it more difficult to account for the effects of climate change on species being assessed for protection, and they appear to signal the administration will allow development, mining, and oil and gas drilling in habitats in which protected species live, according to The New York Times.
Changes to the way the law will be enforced are expected to start in a month and will affect only decisions on listing new species as threatened or endangered. They were announced by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist, who insisted the new enforcement would “ensure [the law] remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal - recovery of our rarest species,” according to a statement. “An effectively administered act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation.”
Environmental activists disagree, saying the changes weaken the law. “These changes tip the scales way in favour of industry,” Brett Hartl, the government-affairs director for the environmental advocacy group the Center for Biological Diversity based in Washington, DC, tells Nature. “They threaten to undermine the last 40 years of progress.”
According to the BBC, Gary Frazer, the assistant director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, told reporters, “nothing in here in my view is a radical change for how we have been consulting and listing species for the last decade or so.”
At least 10 state attorneys general said they plan to sue over the new regulation, the BBC reports. Environmental groups are also planning to take legal action.
“These changes crash a bulldozer through the Endangered Species Act’s lifesaving protections for America’s most vulnerable wildlife,” Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona, tells Science. “For animals like wolverines and monarch butterflies, this could be the beginning of the end. We’ll fight the Trump administration in court to block this rewrite, which only serves the oil industry and other polluters who see endangered species as pesky inconveniences.”
Ashley Yeager is an associate editor at The Scientist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.