The Trump administration has set its crosshairs on endangered species as it marches steadily toward removing federal protections for birds, reptiles, fish, mammals, and even plants.
Led by the Interior Department, the administration is dialing back Endangered Species Act protections to make it easier to build infrastructure and open public lands to more oil and natural gas drilling, a goal Trump stressed early in his first year in office.
Most recently, Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to remove the Canadian lynx from the list of threatened species. A number of other species are set to be downgraded from endangered to threatened, according to the administration's regulatory agenda.
The tidewater goby fish and the Louisiana pine snake are just two species that are slated to be downgraded later this year. The Interior Department also plans to make a final decision on whether to grant the lesser prairie chicken new protections by March. The wild western bird has been a thorn in the GOP’s side for years, along with the sage grouse.
The department early in the Trump administration took some high-profile actions on endangered species, such as not giving the Pacific walrus and more than a dozen other animals protections under the Endangered Species Act.
Environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity have lashed out, calling the department’s decision on the walrus a “truly dark day” for wildlife. The group pointed out that not protecting the walrus in the Arctic was a precursor to Trump’s plan to make it easier for drillers to explore and produce there.
The Interior Department says it has been focused on recovering species from the brink of extinction and its decisions to delist species reflect that effort. The administration says the point of listing a species as endangered is to see them recover. It argues that conservation and environmental groups don’t want species to recover, but want to use the listing to prohibit development by placing restrictions on land use.
The administration’s recently released regulatory agenda points to wholesale changes to the Endangered Species Act that could gut the process used to add animals to the endangered or threatened list for federal protections, said Ya-Wei Li, vice president for endangered species at the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife.
“There are a number of regulatory proposals, many of them having to do with listings and delistings,” but there are two “institutional-wide types of reform efforts that could swamp everything else,” Li said.
Those efforts would undercut key parts of the Endangered Species Act, under sections four and seven of the law, according to Li.
Section 4 covers the listing of new species to the endangered species list. Section 7 ensures that all federal agencies weigh the effects of their actions on the continued existence of any endangered or threatened species, while not harming their habitat, according the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Those are the two biggies,” said Rob Gordon, senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. The administration will seek to “conserve the species" while advancing economic activity, instead of seeing the law as a way of “thwarting” economic activity, he said.
The administration will perform more "critical economic analysis" when establishing habitats for protected species, he said. “I think you will see a different approach to the economic analysis." There will be a “shift in attitude” toward expanding the list more “judiciously” under a “stricter" scientific bar for giving animals protections.
But Li fears the administration will undercut the petition process that is key to moving ahead with new species reviews and to relax requirements on all federal agencies to consider habitat protections in approving permits.
Building Trump’s proposed wall on the border between the U.S. and Mexico is a big reason for rolling back species’ protective status.
The Department of Homeland Security last week waived nearly three dozen environmental laws, including Endangered Species Act requirements, to speed up the wall in New Mexico.
The Center for Biological Diversity, which is suing the administration at a rate of three lawsuits per month, and was the first group to sue Trump over the wall, is contemplating more legal actions in response to the waiver. The group sued the administration for violating the endangered species law because the wall would cross through wildlife habitat and impede migration.
Meanwhile, environmental groups are scrambling to kill draft legislation to ease species protections during pesticide decisions. The bill would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from consulting with the Fish and Wildlife Service on pesticide decisions that may harm endangered species.
The Fish and Wildlife Service will continue down the path it started last year of refusing to list a species as in need of protections or removing protections altogether.
An average of 50 species were added to the protection list each year during the Obama administration, Gordon said. Only 11 species were added last year under Trump.
The Trump administration’s moves on endangered species last year had a lot to do with climate change. The Fish and Wildlife Service used uncertainty about how long climate change would hurt species to not add them to the endangered species list.
The agency this year plans to use “uncertainty” over the future effects of climate change to remove animals from the endangered list, according to conservation groups.
“What we saw with the Pacific walrus was that the Fish and Wildlife Service was quite conservative,” Li said. “In other words, if there was uncertainty about the effects of climate change on the species, the agency has placed more emphasis on the uncertainty, and hence used it to decline listing the species.”
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management issued a memo on expediting oil and natural gas leasing while protecting the sage grouse under the habitat management plan implemented under former President Barack Obama. “This policy should allow for the BLM to efficiently conduct lease sales and permit oil and gas development while still protecting” the sage grouse and its habitat, the memo said.
The bureau also is moving forward on dismantling the Obama administration's habitat management plan for the chicken-sized sage grouse, which the Republican-controlled Congress is also targeting.
House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said recently that the habitat areas put aside for the sage grouse and for endangered species were specifically “to prevent economic development.”
Bishop wants that to change by overhauling the species protection laws to focus on moving species off the endangered list by focusing on recovery, not perpetual endangerment. He told the Washington Examiner this month that states are the key to moving ahead on the changes.
Zach Bodhane, policy adviser for the Western Governors Association, said states want "to act in partnership” with the federal government.
Nationwide, not just in the West, states are looking at conservation and species management as a more cost-effective way of avoiding the strong-handed approach of a federal species listing. Bodhane said the federal law should be used as a “backstop” to help direct states' conservation actions. “Using the carrot aspect of [the Endangered Species Act] over the stick,” he said.
The House Natural Resources Committee has approved five bills on the Endangered Species Act "to reform and modernize the law,” said committee spokeswoman Katie Schoettler.
“We’ve been at the table for a long time on these issues, and we are moving on the right direction, especially now that we have an administration that is actually willing to work with us,” she said.