Trump Rolls Back Endangered Species Protections (Again)

Polar Bear Photo: Wikimedia CC

By Ashira Morris, ODP Contributing Writer

This week, the Trump administration adopted a new rule that narrows the definition of what qualifies as a habitat under the Endangered Species Act. The new definition only allows “critical habitat” for plants and animals at risk to be protected under the Act — meaning it only considers areas essential to their conservation and recovery and not other areas that might be suitable habitats for their survival. That’s a much smaller range than the previous definition, which took into account any space that the species lived in as well as places that it used to live in before human harm, from new roads to climate impacts. 

Why This Matters: By slicing away at the places that the Endangered Species Act applies, more activities that further degrade the habitat will likely be able to proceed. Activities like agriculture, logging, and development are more likely to pass the federal approval process and move forward, causing further harm to protected species. The Act is meant to put endangered species on the road to recovery, giving them the protections and the space they need to get back to a healthy state. The new definition means that places that could support the species now or in the future can’t be considered, even if they could prevent extinction, which runs counter to the very purpose of the Act.  This rollback underscores the need for a global commitment to conserve 30% of the planet by 2030 irrespective of any particular species.  

New Rule Pass in the Middle of Extinction Crisis: With the climate crisis destabilizing ecosystems and shifting where animals and plants can thrive — or even survive — narrowing the scope of habitat definitions puts American wildlife at risk. A study earlier this year found that one third of animal, plant, and insect species could face extinction in the next 50 years. Endangered right whales are swimming into more dangerous waters because climate change has shifted the concentration of the tiny plankton they eat. Millions of birds now migrate earlier because of warming temperatures. Saving the wildlife in a changing climate requires a broader definition of habitat, not a narrower one.

 “The new definition contradicts the purpose of the Endangered Species Act and conflicts with the purpose of critical habitat to conserve species into the future,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, the President and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement. “In the midst of a global extinction crisis, we will ask the Biden administration to right this wrong.” 

Second Major Change from Trump Admin.: This change comes after the Trump administration weakened the Endangered Species Act last year. Those updates included:

  • Removing automatic protections for threatened animals and plants and making them determined on a case-by-case basis
  • Narrowing the impacts regulators have to consider from any threats in “the foreseeable future” to ones specifically “likely” to occur, making it harder to include climate impacts
  • Allowing regulators to consider the economic impact of listing the species, another tip of the scales toward developers

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