The Trump Administration Is Neutering the Endangered Species Act

Its proposal is supposed to sound common-sense. But it prioritizes industry over wildlife.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 13:  Crystal Palace's bald eagle mascot Kayla is seen prior to the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Burnley at Selhurst Park on January 13, 2018 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
This eagle will be OK. It lives in England. Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

The Trump administration proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act on Thursday, an unsurprising move given that it asked the public for comments on the 45-year-old rule in 2017. The proposal features recommendations from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and boils down to two main changes: First, the administration wants to end the policy of applying the same level of protection to threatened species as it does to endangered species. This would only apply to species that are listed as threatened going forward, not retroactively. The text of the proposal emphasized that this change would bring USFWS into line with the current strategy practiced by NOAA, and noted that if implemented, the change would mean that individual species ought to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

The second major change involves the fact that the current version of the ESA dictates that listed species must be protected without regard to the economic cost of doing so. The proposal seeks to end this: “We propose to remove the phrase, “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination,” the proposal states. In other words: We’ll now only protect endangered wildlife if we decide we can afford it.

You can almost hear the defensiveness in USFWS’s announcement, understandable given the enormous popularity of the Endangered Species Act (polls suggest 90 percent of Americans support the bill that is perhaps most famous for rehabilitating the bald eagle). “All changes are being proposed as part of a robust, transparent public process,” the regulation revisions page on the USFWS site states. The announcement doesn’t even spell out that it seeks to end the practice of not accounting for economic impacts in making choices about protection—it buries it in what amounts to essentially meaningless jargon (go look for yourself, it’s the third paragraph here).

The interesting thing is that for all of the adoration the Endangered Species Act receives—surprise, it’s popular to want to save wild animals—the law itself has been woefully out of date for some time. It hasn’t been updated in a quarter-century, and despite success stories like that of the bald eagle and the grey wolf, is underwhelming in its accomplishments. Biannual assessments conducted from 1990 to 2010 found that half of all listed species were continuing to decline despite their status. The number of species added to the list woefully outnumbers any successes that allow species to come off, and yet funding has never been adequate to handle the growing demands. All of this means that the ESA functions more like an overcrowded emergency room struggling to triage its patients than as a functional way to rehabilitate wildlife.

In some ways, the new proposal initially appears to makes sense as a way to handle this overcrowded ER. By focusing the most intensive efforts only on the species that are endangered, rather than all species that are threatened, the new plan could provide more concentrated support to the most endangered animals, which sounds on its face like a good thing. And the proposal to craft individualized plans for threatened species is frankly quite reasonable: Many conservation groups have (convincingly) argued that involving local stakeholders in management plans is in fact the best way to move forward with protecting a species, again, considering the overburdened and underfunded state of the ESA.

But the two parts of the proposal would combine to inhibit these small, potentially reasonable tweaks from having any positive outcome.
For one thing, removing the protections from threatened species would not have a meaningful impact on the funding and resources available to the more endangered animals. Already, 80 percent of ESA funding goes toward just 5 percent of species listed, most of these being either charismatic megafauna or game species. (A full 80 percent of species, most of them plants, received less than 5 percent of available funding.) The ESA is already in a crisis of prioritization—it doesn’t need more help with that. It needs more money. And furthermore, protecting species when we first start to notice their decline has the potential to be way more cost effective than protecting them when they’re so endangered that they need the equivalent of the herculean effort it took to save the California Condor—hand raising individual chicks!—to survive. If the Trump administration was actually interested in cost-effective ways to conserve the broadest amount of wildlife, it would continue to require us to try to help threatened species, in the interest of not having to spend as much later when they become endangered.

Of course, this is plainly not the plan, and that is evident in the second half of the proposal, which dictates that it’s perfectly fine to assess the economic impact of saving a species, and, presumably, decide it’s not worth it to invest in a species that is too far gone. This is of a piece with the larger Trumpian strategy of making it easier for corporations to harm living creatures and the environment while also making it harder to justify protections. This philosophy was pushed by former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt before he was forced out of his post: Pruitt proposed an extremely revealing tweak to how we consider the positive impact environmental rules have. His plan suggested that we no longer account for what are referred to as “co-benefits,” which is a positive effect a rule might have on something outside of the purview of what it was intended to fix.

All together, this represents a philosophy that seeks to systematically make it harder to protect the environment while enabling industry to do whatever it wants. The costs of protecting an endangered species are taken into account, but the inadvertent benefits of an environmental rule cannot be. Killing a bunch of birds doesn’t matter, as long as the person who did it didn’t mean to (another change pushed through by the Trump administration this spring). Threatened species no longer get protection, and when they are weak enough to be endangered, we can basically decide not to save them if it’s too expensive. And of course, the overarching problem that is threatening all species—climate change—is not even worth recognizing as a real problem. The Trump administration does not want to conserve the environment. It wants to exploit it for all its worth. This proposal to revise the ESA is just further evidence.