The Trump administration proposed sweeping to the Endangered Species Act this week that could make ignoring the impacts of climate change on dwindling plant and animal populations easier for the federal government.
Since Donald Trump took office in 2017, his officials have already rolled back dozens of environmental regulations and hired climate-skeptics for key roles related to environmental health and safety. The new regulations, which alter the language of key provisions in the 1973 act, would continue that trend, according to environmentalists. In many cases, the changes elevate economic impact and private interests, like those of oil and timber companies, over a species’ need for protection.
The government has opened a 60-day period of public comment before implementing these changes — and environmental groups have already threatened to sue over them. But if the changes do go into effect, protecting endangered species in the face of a warming planet would become even more difficult, according to experts.
“It's clear that the Endangered Species Act will not be used to protect species threatened by climate change” said Pat Parenteau, an environmental law professor at the University of Vermont.
The changes to the act could even leave wiggle room for an administration notoriously unfriendly to environmental regulations to essentially gut the Endangered Species Act, experts said.
Downplaying and ignoring climate change
To start, the federal government wants to change the definition of a technical but crucial term within the Endangered Species Act: “foreseeable future.”
That term currently helps define what species can be listed as “threatened,” the category for species that aren’t quite “endangered” but are still at risk for extinction. The language was left vague and open to interpretation, which allowed regulators to take the effects of climate change — which could be far off in the future — to be considered.
But the Trump administration now wants to define that term to apply “only as far as they can reasonably determine that both the future threats and the species’ responses to those threats are probable,” according to the Department of the Interior. So if the risks posed by climate change aren’t deemed “probable,” the government wouldn’t have to act on them.
That has environmentalists worried that, under an administration that’s deeply skeptical of climate change, the new language will be used to limit the species listed as endangered — that species under threat from climate change won’t be seen as threatened for the “foreseeable future.”
New limits on protections for habitats
As climate change warms the Earth, some habitats will shrink and change, potentially cutting the available land for species to live. Despite the need for more flexibility in environmentalists’ eyes, the proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act could making protecting habitats more difficult and limited.
Under the Obama administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service, which designates these certain habitats as “critical” to a species survival, considered areas where the species currently lived alongside areas where they might grow and thrive although weren’t currently living.
The Trump administration, however, wants to limit the scope of habitat designation to first consider the places an endangered species currently lives — and only designate habitat where the animals might survive as a last resort. Officials will also prioritize public land as protected habit. That means privately owned land, even if it’s a perfect place for an endangered species to live, would be less likely to be considered.
“They’re essentially giving landowners veto power,” said Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director at the Center Biological Diversity, a left-leaning nonprofit dedicated to saving species.
That’s exactly what’s at stake in a current Supreme Court case involving the critically endangered dusky gopher frog. There’s only about 200 currently living in the wild, and the Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to designate a logging company’s land, where the frog doesn’t currently live, as critical to its survival.
“When critical habitat is designated for a species, areas that haven’t seen the species in decades, are suddenly designated as critical habitat for the species. All of the rules and regulations are applied to these areas that don’t contain habitat or the species,” Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents the oil and gas industry, told VICE News. “This seems pretty common sense.”
The new regulations also specify that certain threats that result from climate change, like “melting glaciers, sea level rise, or reduced snowpack but no other habitat-based threats” might “not be prudent because it would not serve its intended function to conserve the species.”
Deciding whether species are endangered or not
Right now, the federal government can only consider biological and ecological factors when deciding whether to designate a species as endangered or threatened.
But the Department of the Interior wants to strike a line from that rule and allow the government to consider how much those classifications would cost the government and private interests in the long run. Environmentalists worry that places the interests of big business above those of endangered species.
“That is dead wrong as a matter of law. The statute explicitly says that listings are to be based “solely” on biological evidence and every single court to consider the question has so concluded,” Parenteau said in an email. “In the meantime, it will delay or deny protection for hundreds of species that will continue to spiral down and perhaps go extinct.”
Cover image: The critically endangered dusky gopher frog at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans on Sept. 27, 2011. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)