The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act Thursday that it says will streamline efforts to protect species and habitat. Critics say the changes would severely erode the law.
The changes are meant to clarify existing language and points of confusion in the Endangered Species Act, Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt told reporters on a press call.
"I think it’s a question of certainty, predictability, stability and at the same time ensuring that there are lawful requirements to protect species," Bernhard said. "But I think that we can maybe do that in a way that's a little better after 30 some years of experience with these regs. And that's really where the effort is."
Bernhardt outlined a broad series of proposed reforms to sections 4 and 7 of the Act, which determine listing and critical habitat criteria, and interagency consultation.
They include removing existing protections against “takings” — in other words, causing harm to a species — for newly listed threatened species; aligning criteria to remove species from protected status with the criteria to list them; and changing the process for listing species and designating habitat for their recovery and protection.
Another set of reforms revises language about consultation between agencies that manage endangered species habitat and the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries.
Earl Comstock is with the U.S. Commerce Department, which manages imperiled marine species, said:
"It's a good government, good efficiency approach. But, as Dave said, we're not changing standards of protections for these things. Those are set in the statute and we're going to follow those. But this will allow us to better focus the resources that are devoted to protecting those, so that we can better do the job that's in front of us."
Comstock adds many of the changes would match Commerce and Interior Department’s regulations.
But environmental and wildlife advocacy groups say the proposed reforms strip away core protections for endangered and threatened species.
"I don't think it comes as a surprise to anyone that the Trump Administration is not in love with the Endangered Species Act," says Tim Preso, EarthJustice managing attorney for the Northern Rockies.
"So it's not surprising that this set of proposals is designed to essentially pull back the Endangered Species Act's application in various ways."
Preso says the proposed reforms would make it harder to protect endangered and threatened species and their habitat while making it easier to delist them. He’s especially concerned about axing existing protections for threatened species.
"The best way to turn a threatened species into an endangered species is not to give it protection against killing and capture. This seems to be ultimately wrongheaded, but that's the direction they're going."
He says the Act has protected imperiled species from industrial developments in Montana, like bull trout in the Cabinet Mountains, where the U.S. Forest Service ok’d a new mining operation. Preso sued, arguing the Service disregarded threats to bull trout, and he won.
"This proposal would essentially withdraw the requirement we relied on to protect bull trout in that case," Preso says.
Unlike recently proposed federal bills that seek massive overhaul of the Endangered Species Act by having states play a bigger role in species’ recovery, Preso says the proposed regulatory reforms would subtly erode the power of the law.
"When you start grappling with those details, for virtually each one of these, it's a proposal to narrow the Act's applications, to reduce its protections, to make it harder to protect habitat, to make it harder to list species. And the cumulative effects of all of these little changes is going to be a significant erosion of our bedrock law for protecting imperiled wildlife."
The Fish and Wildlife Service will accept public comment on its proposed reforms to the Endangered Species Act beginning in the next few days. Comment will be accepted for 60 days.
Information about how to comment, along with the full text of the changes, is available here: https://www.fws.gov/endangered/improving_ESA/regulation-revisions.html