Trump administration moves to ease enforcement of Endangered Species Act regulations

Published on
August 13, 2019

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday, 12 August, announced changes in how it would administer the Endangered Species Act, a move it said would add transparency to the process.

However, environmental groups lashed out at the move, claiming it would make it harder to protect species and harm wildlife protections, given it will government officials the chance to consider economic factors when determining if action should be taken to intervene in a species’ management plan.

“The revisions finalized with this rulemaking fit squarely within the president’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals,” U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said. “These changes were subject to a robust, transparent public process, during which we received significant public input that helped us finalize these rules.”

However, a consortium of group said in a statement the administration chose to ignore more than 800,000 public comments that opposed the changes.

The Endangered Species Act, which was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1973, divides responsibility for overseeing endangered marine species between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and NOAA Fisheries. While NOAA Fisheries manages species that live in the country’s exclusive economic zone, FWS handles freshwater fish and land-based species. In some instances, the agencies share management duties.

In a joint release by FWS and NOAA Fisheries, the agencies said they would change the way they assess if and how species are threatened.

“When designating critical habitat, the regulations reinstate the requirement that areas where threatened or endangered species are present at the time of listing be evaluated first before unoccupied areas are considered. This reduces the potential for additional regulatory burden that results from a designation when species are not present in an area,” they said. “In addition, the regulations impose a heightened standard for unoccupied areas to be designated as critical habitat. On top of the existing standard that the designated unoccupied habitat is essential to the conservation of the species, it must also, at the time of designation, contain one or more of the physical or biological features essential to the species’ conservation.”

Critics of the revisions to the Endangered Species Act said they will continue to fight against the Trump administration’s push to change the law’s implementation.

Lara Levison, Oceana’s senior director for federal policy, said the law has helped protect critically endangered wildlife, including the North Atlantic right whale. Scientists believe there are about 420 such whales still alive, with just about 100 females capable of breeding. Many of the whales have been injured or killed by interactions with fishing gear.

“The genius of the Endangered Species Act is its recognition that not only do we need to protect vulnerable species, but also allow them to recover so they no longer need the protection of the act,” she said in a statement. “The Trump administration’s new regulations allow federal agencies to water down key elements of the law, putting the North Atlantic right whale and other endangered wildlife at greater risk of extinction.”

One of the biggest issues with the changes to the act is that any impact to an endangered species habitat will now only be considered if the entire habitat is put at risk, Levison said.

Besides environmental groups, more than 100 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 34 U.S. Senators oppose the plan, as did officials in 10 states and the District of Columbia and more than 30 tribal nations.

“These regulations are totally out of touch with the American public, which broadly supports endangered species protections,” said Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’ll do everything in our power to get these dangerous regulations rescinded, including going to court.”

Photo courtesy of World's Wildlife Wonders/Shutterstock

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