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Critics Say Trump Administration Is Weakening Endangered Species Act

Aug 17, 2019
Originally published on August 18, 2019 5:58 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This week, the Trump administration announced changes to some of the ways the Endangered Species Act is enforced. Among the criticisms that followed the announcement was this - that the revisions would make it easier for federal wildlife agencies to ignore climate change when deciding whether to protect a species or not. NPR's Nathan Rott has more.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: There are two revisions in particular that conservationists are worried about because they think that they will limit wildlife officials' ability to consider climate change. One centers on the designation of something called critical habitat. The Trump administration is directing wildlife officials to prioritize the areas that threatened and endangered species currently are before looking at the areas they might be in the future.

Jim Lyons, who worked in the Interior Department under President Obama, says the risk there is that with climate change, species - even us humans - are going to need to move from rising seas and hot temperatures. And he says if currently unoccupied areas are not considered and protected now...

JIM LYONS: The escape hatch, if you will, the potential areas that species can move to will be cut off or lost before it can serve the purpose of, hopefully, protecting a species from extinction.

ROTT: The other concern is around the term foreseeable future, which gets it how far into the future wildlife officials should look when determining whether a species needs protections or not. So, for example, when they're trying to determine whether a coastal salamander needs protections from rising seas, should they look at expected sea levels in 10 years, 50 or maybe a hundred, when some current coastlines will be underwater? Lyons and others say the Trump administration is trying to limit that time frame with legalistic language. Jake Li, the director for biodiversity at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, is not so sure.

JAKE LI: It absolutely is not the case that - the Obama administration had, you know, nearly unlimited discretion to consider climate change. And now, you know, the Trump administration has cabined itself so much that that's going to change.

ROTT: Li says the revisions overall do weaken the Endangered Species Act. But context here, he says, is important. Across administrations, wildlife officials have applied a wide range of foreseeable futures from 25 years to 80. In some cases, those longer projections were used to give species protections. Other times, short projections were used to deny them. Science is always the foundation of those decisions. It's required to be by law. But Li says it is not alone.

LI: Politics plays a huge factor into decisions on whether to list species.

ROTT: The Trump administration says it's making these changes for the same stated reason it's altered or rolled back dozens of environmental laws - to reduce regulation for industry and landowners. Species, it says, will still be protected too. And while skepticism about the administration's consideration of climate change is understandable, given its denial and suppression of climate science...

HOLLY DOREMUS: A lot of the media coverage, a lot of the reaction seems, to me, overblown.

ROTT: Holly Doremus is a professor of environmental law at the University of California, Berkeley, and she doesn't like these revisions. But she also doesn't think that they're going to cause a big difference in how the Endangered Species Act is applied. So why are they making the changes at all?

DOREMUS: I think these regulatory changes are as much propaganda as substance.

ROTT: They're a way, she says, for the Trump administration to show its constituents who don't like the Endangered Species Act that it's doing something about it. But she says it does not address the bigger question of what climate change means for our ability to protect species into the future.

Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.