Assaults on the Endangered Species Act: Details and Consequences

The Trump administration and Ryan Zinke’s Department of the Interior are currently pushing for draconian changes to the Endangered Species Act, a set of laws in place since the Nixon era that have protected many fragile species threatened with extinction.

The proposed changes are part of a wide-reaching effort to dismantle environmental protections and remove regulations placed on industry, an appeal to the administration’s pro-business base. These efforts have been met with outrage and objection from groups and individuals concerned about environmental threats, including climate change, ecosystem degradation, and the loss of biodiversity.

The proposed changes will cover two broad areas of the law: They will make it easier to remove species from the list, re-exposing once protected animals to previous dangers. And the changes will remove automatic protections for species that are classified as threatened, not yet endangered. These protections include limitations to development in areas recognized as crucial habitat for the species in question.

The widely-supported current law, signed in 1973, has so far protected over 1,200 species from extinction, including bald eagles and Yellowstone grizzly bears, both of which once hovered at the brink. At this point, the list is managed and overseen by US Fish and Wildlife (land animals) and NOAA (marine species), and may be the last crucial barrier protecting imperiled species like the polar bear, the sage grouse and the American grey wolf.

Almost every species placed on the list or granted essential protections by the statutes of the act has struggled with backlash or counterpressure from industry groups who feel the protections limit their specific profits or productivity. For example, wolf protections face ongoing, high-pitched emotional condemnation from ranchers and cattle producers who feel the ESA represents a threat to their livelihood.

Every addition to the list has come with heavily politicized caveats and intense dialogue from industry groups representing everything from housing development to ranching to tourism. The outcome of these recent proposals remains to be seen, but the administration has collected a dismal environmental record so far, and these proposals appear to be taking shape along established partisan lines. Please join us as we follow these developing events.