Regulatory Changes to Endangered Species Act Could Threaten Ecosystems

The Endangered Species Act (ESA), signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973, currently protects 1,663 animal and plant species. Of these, 1,275 are considered endangered and 388 are considered threatened. The law has prevented the extinction of 99% of the species it protects. 

The ESA helps conserve biodiversity in ecosystems around the country by designating protection zones where the animals live and outlaws the hunting of their species. It closely monitors their habitats and populations to prevent their extinction. It is credited with saving countless species including the bald eagle, California condor, grizzly bear, and northern gray wolf.

Conserving biodiversity not only protects the animals themselves but also helps improve the environment because it is essential to the way our ecosystem functions. It helps safeguard agriculture and is beneficial to public health.

However, the effectiveness of the ESA is under threat.

In July 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), a part of the Department of the Interior, proposed a set of changes to the ESA that will weaken protections for thousands of protected species. Earlier this month, these weakened protections were approved and will go into effect this September. 

The changes will transform how the government will enforce the ESA.

Currently, any species that is listed as threatened, only one step below endangered, automatically receives the same protection as endangered species. The new rules loosen this designation and will establish protection status for threatened species on a case-by-case basis instead. This will slow down the process of determining which species need protection and, according to the Center for Biological Discovery, inevitably reduce protections for threatened animals and plants. 

When deciding if a species warrants protection, FWS officials currently also take into account the likelihood of a species becoming endangered in the “foreseeable future.” If they determine that a species could be endangered in the future, the species can be labeled as threatened and be given protection. The new changes, however, will give officials more discretion in limiting what “foreseeable future” means. This will let them ignore future threats like climate change, rising sea levels, and extreme droughts, conditions that can harm species in only a few decades. 

In another change, the FWS removed language that prohibited officials from considering the economic impacts of certain protections. The ESA currently requires that wildlife agencies base their decision of the protection status of a species solely on scientific data. With the new changes, however, officials will be allowed to conduct economic assessments when deciding if a species needs protection. By allowing consideration of economic impacts, business interests of oil and mining companies can interfere with wildlife protections. It opens the door for companies to drill and mine in areas where threatened animals live, negatively impacting the environment. 

The federal law has been a major obstacle for mining and drilling industries because it puts large amounts of land off-limits to construction. Complying with all the rules of the ESA is a considerable expense for these corporations. The new rollbacks will make it easier for these companies to develop areas that were previously blocked off. Industrial developments like housing, roads, and pipelines can destroy the habitats of animals, which has been one of the leading causes of biodiversity loss.

The changes to the ESA fly in the face of international consensus on wildlife protection. This past May, a United Nations panel on biodiversity released an alarming report about the condition of Earth’s animals and plants. It found that as many as 1 million species are now at risk of extinction due to factors like climate change, deforestation, pollution, and overfishing. It asked the countries of the world to improve their wildlife protection programs.

The ESA changes would do exactly the opposite.

State Attornies General of California and Massachusetts already plan to sue the FWS over the changes, claiming they would dismantle important protections for at-risk wildlife and could cause irreplaceable damage to our ecosystems

NYLCV will continue to advocate for policies that support our ecosystems and preserve biodiversity.