IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The newly endangered species of the Trump era is the Endangered Species Act

The administration and Congress has opened a new front in its war on science by making it easier to cause extinctions
Image: FILE PHOTO: A bald eagle sits in a tree in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines, Alaska
A bald eagle sits in a tree in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines, Alaska, in 2014.Bob Strong / Reuters file

The Endangered Species Act itself is currently endangered, as a result of predation by lobbyists, conservatives in Congress and President Donald Trump.

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service announced proposed revisions that would change the way the agencies implement the Endangered Species Act – actions that could lead to the destruction of essential habitat and otherwise preventable species extinctions. And President Trump’s allies in Congress are preparing their own additional attacks on the law, pushing bills in both the House and the Senate that would demolish the scientific foundations of the law.

Speaking to the New York Times, Richard Pombo – a former member of Congress notorious for his hostility to environmental laws who is now paid to lobby for mining interests – says that the Trump administration and Congress are offering “probably the best chance that we have had in 25 years to actually make any substantial changes” in the law.

These potential changes would roll back critical habitat regulations and listing protections for wildlife designated as threatened and diminish the role of climate change in determining protection. The proposed changes would also take economic concerns into consideration during the listing process.

This sends a loud message to the public that economic considerations will prevail over scientific evidence, even at the cost of an entire ecosystem and the species dependent upon it.

But science is the foundation of the Endangered Species Act, which was created more than 40 years ago to protect animals and plants from irreversible destruction, including threats like habitat loss and fragmentation, overharvesting, pollution, invasive species, and climate change. And it has been remarkably successful at preventing extinctions, with 99% of the species protected under the Act still sharing our planet today: Every time you see America’s iconic national bird, the bald eagle, you’re seeing evidence of its success of the Endangered Species Act.

However, since science is the basis for listing and delisting threatened and endangered species, developing recovery plans for the continued survival of listed species and taking preventative conservation efforts, the law is particularly vulnerable to efforts to manipulate, disregard or censor science.

A grizzly bear mother and her cub walk near Pelican Creek in the Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, in 2012. Grizzly bears native to Yellowstone and the surrounding area were removed from the endangered species list in 2017.Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images

Despite its overall success the Endangered Species Act has already withstood a barrage of politically motivated attacks over the years, from hidden policy riders in budget bills to blatant editing of scientific evidence in federal documents. Under the current administration, we’ve witnessed the introduction of several pieces of legislation intended to weaken the Endangered Species Act or block its use to protect specific species. But, as the New York Times reported, the threat has now escalated as opponents of species protection see a historic opportunity to permanently gut the Endangered Species Act – one which might end after the 2018 elections.

The Trump administration’s changes and the bills proposed in Congress thus specifically target the role of science, reducing its influence in decisions about whether and how to conserve species and adding extra bureaucratic hurdles that increase the chances for political interference. This could lead to otherwise-preventable species extinctions and large-scale damage to ecosystems.

The strategy is seemingly deliberately subtle: The administration’s new proposals and the sponsors of proposed legislation in Congress use small changes in wording that will cause big shifts in the way federal agencies identify species at risk and create plans to protect them. These changes would enable agencies to prioritize a politically-connected company’s interest in development over scientific evidence and make it much harder to put a species on the endangered list. If all of these efforts succeed we might still have a law called “the Endangered Species Act,” but it will be a shell of the former policy — and do little to nothing to actually protect animals and plants at risk. That’s a big, radical change.

What’s happening to the Endangered Species Act is bad enough, but this coordinated attack is part of a larger pattern in Trump administration of attacking on science in general. Just as the administration is trying to downplay and sideline science in decisions about plant and animal species, they’re doing the same to the laws that protect us, rushing to implement industry wish lists and dismantle public safeguards, threatening the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food and consumer products we buy, the hazardous chemicals we’re exposed to and the safety of our homes, schools and workplaces.

Fortunately, there’s a path to block these changes. The Endangered Species Act is widely supported by the American public, who largely support stronger environmental protection. Nearly 1,500 scientists have signed on to a letter demanding that Congress defend the Endangered Species Act and the critical role of science. The legislative proposals would need to pass both houses of Congress to take effect. And once the Trump administration’s proposed changes are officially published, the public has 60 days to submit comments. The Endangered Species Act is under threat — and it’s up to us to come to the rescue.

Charise Johnson is a research analyst with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She has a background in environmental science, biology, and psychology.