Wildlife agencies scrap Trump’s endangered species rules

Billings, Mont. (AP) — President Joe Biden’s administration on Tuesday announced plans to cancel two environmental rollbacks under former President Donald Trump that restricted habitat protection for endangered plants and wildlife.

The proposal to drop the two Trump-era rules by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service is part of a wide-ranging effort by the Biden administration to undoing rules that Democrats and conservationists say industry is preferable to the environment

Designating land and water as critical to the survival of vulnerable species could limit mining, oil drilling and other development. That has made the designations a focal point for conflicts between environmental and business interests.

Industry groups and Republicans in Congress have long viewed the Endangered Species Act as a barrier to economic development. Under Trump, they successfully lobbied to weaken the bill’s regulations with changes that gave more weight to economic development and other interests.

The changes in the Trump administration had the support of a range of industry groups who said the economic impact had not been sufficiently taken into account in previous US administration decisions on wildlife. Those groups ranged from livestock and ranching organizations to trade associations representing oil, gas, and mining interests.

Officials of the Biden Administration recognized in documents published in the Federal Register that in canceling Trump’s rules, they took stances that federal wildlife organizations rejected several months ago.

But Biden administration officials said a re-evaluation of Trump policies showed they were “problematic” because they limited the government’s ability to promote wildlife conservation by protecting areas where plants and animals are found.

Assistant Secretary for Fisheries and Wildlife and Parks Shannon Estenoz said the proposal would bring the Endangered Species Act “in line with its original intent and purpose: to protect and restore America’s biological heritage for generations to come.”

Republican lawmakers pushed back. Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman, the ranking GOP member of the House Natural Resources Committee, called Tuesday’s move a “tone-deaf” reversal of necessary reforms to the Endangered Species Act.

Westerman and other Republicans said they were enacting legislation to make the Trump rules permanent. That has little chance of success as long as the Democrats retain control of the House and Senate.

The rule changes under Trump were finalized during his final weeks in office, meaning they have had little time to make a significant impact. The rules haven’t affected new critical habitat designations since they came into effect in January, said Brian Hires, spokesperson for Fish and Wildlife.

A allows the government to refuse protection of habitats for endangered animals and plants in areas that could derive greater economic benefits from development. Democratic lawmakers and conservationists complained that this could potentially open land to more drilling and other activities.

Provide the other line: a definition of “habitat” that critics denounced would rule out sites that species might need in the future as climate change turns ecosystems upside down.

The two rules came in response to a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving a highly endangered southern frog — the dusky gopher frog.

In that case, a unanimous court criticized the government for designating a “critical habitat” for the 3 ½-inch-long (8.9 centimeters long) frogs that survive in just a few ponds in Mississippi.

The problem arose after a logging company, Weyerhaeuser, filed a lawsuit when the land it owned in Louisiana was deemed critical in case the frogs returned there in the future.

Trump officials described the changes as showing greater respect for local governments when they want to build things like schools and hospitals.

But the rules allowed for potential habitat protection exemptions for a much wider range of developments, including at the request of private companies that lease federal lands or have permits to use them. Government-issued leases and permits can allow for energy development, grazing, recreation, logging and other commercial uses of public lands.

Environmentalists who have urged Biden to roll back Trump’s conservation policies said removing the habitat rules is an important step toward that goal.

“You really can’t save endangered species without protecting the places where they live or should live,” said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Still pending, he said, changes are expected to a Trump-era rule that would make protecting wildlife categorized as threatened with extinction a less urgent conservation status than endangered.

Animals that may be affected by the changes include the struggling little prairie chicken, a grassland bird found in five southern US states, and the rare dune wormwood lizard that lives among the oil fields of western Texas and eastern Texas. New Mexico, conservationists said. †

Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.