In our July 2018 blog, we highlighted potential implications to numerous threatened and endangered species in connection with proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) by the current U.S. Presidential Administration. These proposed changes came into effect on August 19, 2019 in the name of "increasing transparency and effectiveness" and were touted by some members of the Department of the Interior as bringing the ESA into the 21st century with a more "effective, consistent and clear interpretation." Superficially, these changes may appear to improve methods for conservation and protection of wildlife in the United States, however in practice, they will substantially erode protections for our nation’s threatened and endangered species.
Three changes have been made to the ESA's regulations. The first modifies a regulation so that newly-listed threatened species will no longer be given the same protections as endangered species. This makes it easier to degrade species from endangered to threatened and also to remove them from the list completely.
The next regulation modification is perhaps the greatest attempt to weaken the law's effectiveness. It removes language from a key provision about the listing process that has, since the inception of the ESA, barred economic considerations from influencing the decision-making process. In other words, if protecting a species would inhibit or slow energy development, decision-makers could choose to minimize or eliminate protections.
Lastly, a modification defines stricter criteria for evidence of threats to critical habitat, including timeline. Climate change, for example, may no longer be considered a threat impacting the survival of a species. Any species facing extinction due to climate change, think polar bears, would not be considered for listing based on that threat alone in the future.
These changes come at a time when the environment is facing unprecedented pressure. The gravity of these threats was outlined in a comprehensive report by the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), in May of this year. The report concluded that over 1 million species worldwide face extinction from human activities.
Despite this, the United States' most effective conservation legislation that protects more than 1,600 species in the U.S. and its territories has been significantly weakened so that private interests essentially have a stake in determining the fate of threatened and endangered species and the ecosystems they depend on.
Fortunately, one major lawsuit has been filed by a coalition of environmental groups, and many lawmakers and state attorneys general have vowed to challenge the regulatory changes.
We at the Turtle Conservancy are dedicated to continuing our fight to protect the world’s most threatened turtles and tortoises, and their habitats worldwide. You can take action by calling your local representatives and voicing your opinion about these devastating changes.