15. Trump Administration Threatens Endangered Species Act

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The Endangered Species Act (ESA)—which currently protects more than 1,600 native plant and animal species in the United States and its territories—is “increasingly challenged by an administration that has little patience for laws and regulations that help protect our lands and wildlife,” Charles Pekow wrote in an article published by Earth Island Journal in Spring 2019. In the two years since Donald Trump became president, Pekow reported, “at least 80 bills” seeking to undermine the ESA or remove species from the list have been introduced in Congress, and key federal agencies charged with implementing the ESA have proposed revisions to weaken vital elements of it.

For a little over a decade, according to the Earth Island Journal’s report, conservationists have fought to protect Pacific walruses under the Endangered Species Act. Protection for the walrus under the ESA was first proposed in 2008; in 2011, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) suggested that the Pacific walrus was threatened and endangered. But in October 2017, the Trump administration concluded that the Pacific walrus did not warrant listing. The FWS under Trump appointees explained that “impacts of the effects of climate change on the Pacific walrus population are based on speculation, rather than reliable prediction,” Pekow reported. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has sued the Trump administration over the decision, and that lawsuit is still pending.

According to the CBD, since 1996 more than four hundred pieces of legislation have been proposed seeking to dismantle critical species protections. As Pekow reported, legislators often include these proposals as “riders to must-pass spending bills.” Gray wolves in the Rocky Mountains lost protections this way after passage of a 2011 budget rider. However, as Pekow wrote, “The most critical blow to the Act has come from the federal agencies charged with implementing the ESA”: the Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages plants, wildlife, and inland fisheries, and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees ocean-going fish and marine mammals. In July 2018, the two agencies jointly proposed that species designated as “threatened” should no longer automatically receive the same protections as those designated as “endangered.” In other words, Pekow summarized, “there would be no automatic prohibitions on the harming or killing of plants and animals designated ‘threatened.’” The agencies also proposed overturning a provision of the ESA that restricts consideration of economic impacts when determining whether a species needed protection. The proposals would make it more difficult to add new species to the list and, Pekow noted, environmentalists fear that changes would also make it easier to delist species because their habitats are desirable to industry.

Beyond Pekow’s detailed report for Earth Island Journal, the Trump administration’s decision not to list the Pacific walrus has received limited coverage in other news outlets, including USA Today and the Chicago Tribune; National Geographic and Popular Science have also provided coverage. The Guardian published a more in-depth piece on the topic in October 2017.

The broader topic of the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine the ESA has not been prominently reported, though in July 2018 the Washington Post published a reasonably detailed report on the joint proposal by the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service to strip the ESA of key provisions.

The following month, the Post also published an opinion piece by David Bernhardt, who was deputy secretary of the interior at the time. In “The Greatest Good for Endangered Species,” Bernhardt advocated a “modern vision of conservation” employing “federalism, public–private partnerships and market-based solutions to achieve sound stewardship.” Bernhardt wrote that the Trump administration “found room for improvement in the administration” of the ESA, which currently “places unnecessary regulatory burden on our citizens without additional benefit to the species.” The Post failed to inform its readers of Bernhardt’s background as a former lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry or of what one independent news outlet described as his “long track record of trying to weaken wildlife protections in favor of more extraction.”

Charles Pekow, “On Thin Ice: Will the Endangered Species Act Survive the Trump Administration?” Earth Island Journal, Spring 2019, http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/magazine/entry/on-thin-ice-endangered-species-act-trump-administration.

Student Researcher: Madi Jones (College of Western Idaho)

Faculty Evaluator: Michelle Mahoney (College of Western Idaho)