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Eviscerating the Endangered Species Act


While driving in eastern Oregon the other day, I saw a bald eagle. And it was great. I’ve seen them before, but it’s always a treat. And as an environmental historian (which is my actual professional training, not labor history), I am always reminded how close this wonderful creature came to extinction. But do you think such thoughts cross the mind of Republicans? Ha ha ha, of course not. Instead, they want to destroy the ESA.

As the Trump administration continues to roll back America’s commitment to conservation, we should fear that it will succeed in turning the federal government away from its responsibility to protect species from extinction. Recently, the administration denied petitions to list 25 wildlife species as endangered.

As Kathleen Harnett-White, who is a Senate-vote away from becoming the administration’s chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, put it, the Endangered Species Act is “economically harmful” and a “formidable obstacle to development.” So perhaps it should not have come as a surprise when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced that he would reopen areas of sage grouse habitat to mining and oil and gas leasing. Zinke, along with the USDA Forest Service, also plans to revisit the state-federal sage grouse conservation plans that successfully led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide not to list the grouse as threatened or endangered.

Some critics are encouraging a rewrite of the law itself, arguing that the ESA has failed because relatively few of the already listed species have been brought to “recovery.” Many states also want more control over determining when a species should be listed, or removed, from the list, and in identifying “critical habitat” for the survival of a listed species.

The Endangered Species Act has prevented some important and iconic species from going extinct, including bald eagles, the Yellowstone grizzly and gray whales. The primary impediment to recovery has always been a lack of resources. A recent study found that most listed species with recovery plans received less than 90 percent of the amount of money needed for their recovery, and that overall funding for the act has declined since 2010. Only sufficient funding from Congress — not changes in the law itself — can fix this problem.

Critics also complain that “consultations” — the required reviews of projects that may harm listed species or their habitat — are costly, time-consuming, and increase uncertainty in project planning. In December, the Trump administration announced plans to change the rules governing endangered species consultations and critical habitat designations. Yet a recent review of all Fish and Wildlife Service consultations from January 2008 through April 2015 found that no project was stopped or extensively altered due to reviews. On average, approvals took only 14 business days. The 10 percent of consultations that required further review took 61 days. In virtually all cases, the agency acted within the time limits set by the law.

Although determining whether a species is in danger of extinction is based solely on biological grounds — as it should be — economic factors are already considered in identifying habitat that is critical for the survival of a species. In 2015, Wyoming Republican Gov. Matt Mead, as chair of the Western Governors’ Association, launched a review of how the Endangered Species Act was working. One outcome was a Western Governors’ policy statement supporting “all reasonable management efforts to conserve species and preclude the need to list a species under the ESA.”

It’s unlikely the ESA is repealed entirely, largely because doing so would be very hard. It’s just that under Republican governance it is completely eviscerated, left in shreds for Democrats to put back togehter when they next take power. And because building up takes more time than tearing down, Republicans know they win the long game.

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