The US Endangered Species Act (ESA) is the United States’ most effective law to protect at-risk species from extinction, having done so for 99% of species ever listed.
Passed with bipartisan support in 1973, the law allows individuals and organizations to petition to have a species listed as endangered or threatened. According to World Wildlife Fund, these petitions undergo rigorous scientific evaluation and public review before a final decision is made on whether a species should be protected.
The ESA requires protection for critical habitat areas and the development and implementation of recovery plans for listed species. It also allows for flexibility in its implementation, requiring coordination among federal, state, tribal, and local officials on efforts to prevent extinction.
In 2019, the Trump administration made drastic changes to how the ESA was applied, Nature reports, weakening protections for threatened species, and making the decision of protecting a species a question of economic profit and loss
“These changes tip the scales way in favour of industry,” said Brett Hartl, government-affairs director for the environmental advocacy group the Center for Biological Diversity. “They threaten to undermine the last 40 years of progress.”
According to the Humane Society of the United States, the measure stripped threatened species of vital safeguards, created hurdles to list species threatened by climate change, weakened protections of critical habitat, and made it easier for federal agencies to ignore the impact of government actions on listed species, including African lions, grizzly bears and elephants. The regulations also directed regulators to assess economic impacts when making decisions about whether species should be listed — estimating lost revenue from a prohibition on logging in a critical habitat — when deciding whether a species warrants protection — tipping the scales against animals who happen to live in areas targeted by business operations like mining, oil drilling or development.
The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service finalized the changes, which are among the most sweeping alterations to the law since it was enacted.
The US government has framed the updates as a way to ease the burden of regulations and increase transparency into decisions on whether a species warrants protections. However, as the New York Times reports, the changes would also make it more difficult for regulators to factor in the effects of climate change on wildlife when making those decisions because those threats tend to be decades away, not immediate.
Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a public statement the changes “crash a bulldozer through the Endangered Species Act’s lifesaving protections for America’s most vulnerable wildlife5.”
Drew Caputo, the vice president of litigation for lands, wildlife and oceans at Earthjustice, said “This effort to gut protections for endangered and threatened species has the same two features of most Trump administration actions: it’s a gift to industry, and it’s illegal6.”
Without protections granted by the ESA, the peregrine falcon, the humpback whale, the Tennessee purple coneflower and the Florida manatee all would very likely have disappeared the New York Times reports.
Since the law was passed, more than 1,650 have been listed as threatened or endangered, while just 47 have been delisted because their populations rebounded. Some use this point to criticize the ESA, claiming it takes too long to show progress.
That’s true. Restoring life takes time.
The FWS maintains that recovering any species requires a substantial time commitment.
“In some cases we, are attempting to combat population declines more than 200 years in the making,” the FWS website states.
With the growing threat of climate change, the ESA is as important to the survival of our native plant and animal species as ever.
Join others in demanding the USFWS and National Marine Fisheries Service remove economic impact assessments from environmental decisions, restore regulations that automatically apply protections to ‘threatened’ plants and animals, and protect the habitat of threatened and endangered animals.
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