Wildlife agencies to roll back Trump’s rules on endangered species | Montana News

By MATTHEW BROWN, Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – President Joe Biden’s administration on Tuesday announced plans to reverse two environmental rollbacks under former President Donald Trump that limited habitat protections 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 sweeping effort by the Biden administration to roll back regulations that Democrats and advocates say wildlife, favored industry over the environment.

Designating lands and waters as critical for the survival of vulnerable species can limit mining, oil drilling and other developments. This has made 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 successfully lobbied to weaken the law’s regulations with changes that gave more weight to economic development and other interests.

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

Biden administration officials have acknowledged in documents released to the Federal Register that by overriding Trump’s rules, they are adopting views that federal wildlife agencies rejected just months ago.

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

Assistant Secretary for Fish 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 recover the biological heritage of America for future generations”.

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

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

The rule changes under Trump were finalized in his final weeks in office, meaning they had little time to have any meaningful impact. No new critical habitat designations have been affected by the rules since they came into force in January, Fish and Wildlife spokesman Brian Hires said.

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

The other rule provided a definition of ‘habitat’ which critics accused of excluding locations that species may need to use in the future as climate change upends ecosystems.

Both rules came in response to a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding a highly endangered southern frog – the dark gopher frog.

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

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

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

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

Environmentalists who have urged Biden to reverse Trump’s conservation policies 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 be made to a Trump-era rule that reduced protections for wildlife classified as endangered, a less urgent protection status. than endangered.

Animals potentially affected by the changes include the struggling little prairie chicken, a grassland bird found in five south-central U.S. states, and the rare sagebrush dune lizard that lives among western oilfields. of Texas and eastern New Mexico, wildlife advocates said.

Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP

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