Wildlife agencies overturn Trump’s endangered species rules

The proposal to drop the two Trump-era rules by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service is part of a larger effort by the Biden administration to overturn regulations that Democrats and advocates say wildlife, favor the industry over the environment.

Designating land and water as critical for the survival of vulnerable species can limit mining, oil drilling, and other developments. This has made the designations a flashpoint for conflicts between environmental and commercial interests.

Industry groups and Republicans in Congress have long viewed the Endangered Species Act as an obstacle to economic development. Under Trump, they were successful in pushing to weaken the regulations of the law with changes that gave more weight to economic development and other interests.

The Trump administration’s changes have been supported by a range of industry groups who have said economic impacts had not been sufficiently considered in previous US government decisions on wildlife. These groups ranged from ranching and ranching organizations to trade associations representing oil, gas and mining interests.

Officials in the Biden administration admitted in documents released to the federal registry that by overturning Trump’s rules, they were adopting views that federal wildlife agencies rejected just a few months ago.

But officials in the Biden administration said a reassessment of Trump’s policies showed them “problematic” because they limited the government’s ability to advance conservation by protecting areas where plants and animals are found.

Assistant Secretary of Fisheries, Wildlife and Parks Shannon Estenoz said the proposal would align the Endangered Species Act “with its original intent and purpose – to protect and recover America’s biological heritage. for future generations “.

Republican lawmakers backed off. Arkansas Representative Bruce Westerman, the GOP’s senior member of the House Natural Resources Committee, called Tuesday’s decision a “muffled” reversal of needed reforms to the endangered species law. disappearance.

Westerman and other Republicans have said they are tabling legislation to make the Trump rules permanent. This is unlikely to pass as long as the Democrats retain control of the House and Senate.

The rule changes under Trump were finalized in his last few weeks in office, meaning they had little time to make a significant impact. No new critical habitat designation has been affected by the rules since they came into effect in January, Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Brian Hires said.

One allows the government to deny protection of habitat for endangered animals and plants in areas that could derive greater economic benefits from development. Democratic lawmakers and wildlife advocates have complained that this would potentially open up land to more drilling and other activities.

The other rule provided a definition of “habitat” that critics accused of excluding places species might need to use in the future, as climate change disrupts ecosystems.

Both rules came in response to a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding a critically endangered southern frog – the Dusky Gopher Frog.

In that case, a unanimous court criticized the government for designating “critical habitat” for the 3½-inch-long (8.9-centimeter-long) frogs that survive in a few ponds in Mississippi.

The problem arose after a logging company, Weyerhaeuser, sued when land it owned in Louisiana was designated as critical in case the frogs returned in the future.

Trump officials have described the changes as giving more deference to local governments when they want to build things like schools and hospitals.

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

Environmentalists who have urged Biden to reverse Trump’s conservation policies have said the abandonment of habitat rules marks a major step toward that goal.

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

Still pending, he said, changes are expected to a Trump-era rule that reduced protections for wildlife listed as threatened with extinction, to less urgent protection status than endangered.

Animals potentially affected by the changes include the struggling prairie chicken, a prairie bird found in five south-central states, and the rare dune lizard that lives among the oil fields of West Texas and from eastern New Mexico, conservationists have said. .

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Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP

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