To most Americans, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 has been an astounding success, saving some 99 percent of listed plants and animals from extinction, including iconic birds like the Bald Eagle and Whooping Crane. But it’s far from an industry darling. Critics of the law argue that it puts an unnecessary burden on the land users that brush up against it. Their frustrations have, in turn, inspired a fresh wave of political efforts intended to make the law more maneuverable for businesses—a push conservationists fear will undermine the species it protects.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, since January of 2017 more than 75 bills and amendments have been introduced in Congress that would simplify, restrict, or outright weaken the act, ranging from attempts to delist individual species to defunding specific projects. “The vast majority of these proposals are basically lobbing bombs at the ESA,” says Ya-Wei Li, the director for biodiversity at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, a nonprofit that seeks to improve conservation policies for wildlife and people. So far, none of the legislation has passed, but the hits keep coming: This summer, the House Western Caucus put forth a nine-bill package that in part loads more bureaucracy onto the ESA to make listings more difficult. In the Senate, John Barrasso (R-WY) introduced a separate draft bill that maximizes state—and, possibly, industry—power over recovery plans.
But the most potent threat might come from the presidential administration itself. In July the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which administer the ESA, unveiled a suite of revisions ostensibly designed to streamline the law’s implementation. Some conservationists, though, see the proposal more as an attempt to gut the law than reform it. “It’s a direct attack,” says Brian Rutledge, director of Audubon’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative. “It’s really saying industries’ needs are more important than the needs of the American public and our wildlife.”
Under the proposed changes, agencies deciding whether to list a species would be allowed to cite potential economic losses from missed development, and some federal units undertaking projects that could impact protected species—say, floodplain control or a border wall—would no longer be required to consult with wildlife experts from other agencies.
Additionally, threatened plants and animals would no longer by default be entitled to the same protections as endangered species. This change wouldn’t retroactively affect already listed species, but it could result in fewer safeguards for those currently being considered for the ESA, including the Tufted Puffin, Black-backed Woodpecker, and a handful of other bird species.
The proposal would also roll back a rule that restricts development in areas that listed species don’t currently occupy but might in the future. That could hinder efforts to recover wildlife that occupy a fraction of their historical range and make it tougher to preserve potential climate refuges, such as those identified in Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report.
Conservationists argue that it is possible to reform the ESA without pitting environmental groups against industries. In fact, “there’s a lot of opportunity for common ground,” Li notes. For example, Ethan Lane, executive director of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association federal lands program, says that while ranchers have qualms with how the act is implemented, they do recognize healthy ecosystems as integral to their livelihoods. Over the past three years Lane, Li, and Rutledge have all taken part in an effort spearheaded by the Western Governors’ Association to come up with feasible solutions to ESA conflicts, like incentivizing voluntary conservation measures that could help stem the decline of species before agency intervention is required. That’s the approach that in 2015 resulted in a collaboration to keep the Greater Sage-Grouse off the endangered species list by protecting the sagebrush ecosystem across 10 states—a plan the Department of the Interior is now trying to dismantle.
But even as they pursue more constructive strategies, conservationists are being forced to play defense against political attempts to chip away at the nation’s most critical tool for preserving wildlife. The Trump administration’s proposal is open to public comments through September 24, and should it move forward, green groups will likely challenge a number of the rules in court. In an era when so many species are hurtling toward extinction, Rutledge says, “we just don’t have time for this nonsense.”
This story originally ran in the Fall 2018 issue as “Risky Business.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.