Written by Ellen Essman
In August, the Secretary of the Interior announced that the Trump Administration would be making revisions to the way the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is carried out under federal regulations. The move was made in part to further the Administration’s goal to “ease the regulatory burden” on citizens. The revised regulations apply to sections 4 and 7 of the ESA, which means they make changes to how species are listed as endangered, how critical habitat for species is determined, how threatened species are treated, and how the different federal agencies cooperate to carry out the ESA.
Revision of endangered, threatened, and critical habitat protections
The changes to how the ESA is carried out were made in three rulemakings published on August 27, 2019. One of the rules, available here, is meant to increase cooperation between federal agencies when carrying out the ESA (this rule is set to become effective on October 28). Changes made by the other two rules, available here, and here, are much more controversial because they have a great impact on how endangered and threatened species and their habitats are treated under federal regulations. The new rules went into effect on September 26, 2019. We discuss some of the biggest modifications below.
First, the rules change the term “physical or biological features” to “physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species.” This change will likely diminish the number of natural features and areas that will be protected, since only those deemed essential to an endangered species will be protected. Similarly, the new rules give the federal government more leeway to determine when habitat is not critical habitat for species, which may result in less habitat being protected under the new iteration of the rules.
In yet another change, the new rules separate the discussion of “threatened” and “endangered” species within the regulatory text. Due to this uncoupling, some read the new version of the rule as stripping threatened species of protections they enjoyed when they were more closely related to endangered species. The new edition of the rules instead includes factors for determining whether a species can be listed as threatened, such as whether it is likely the species will become endangered in the “foreseeable future,” which will be determined on a case by case basis. Critics of the new rules believe that this language will give the government the discretion to overlook the effects of climate change on a species, which could play out over a period of time longer than the “foreseeable future.” Along the same lines, the rules also make it harder to ban certain activities in order to protect threatened species.
The rules weaken the ESA by allowing the federal government to take into account the actions of states, other nations, and local jurisdictions when listing and delisting species. In other words, if the species is being protected on another level of government or by another country, the U.S. government may be less inclined to protect the species; either by choosing not to list the species, or by removing its threatened or endangered status. Importantly, the new rules also allow “commercial information,” not just scientific information, to be considered when making a decision. Under the old rules, agencies were not allowed to consider the economic impacts of listing or delisting a species. On the whole, the rules seem to give the federal government a lot more discretion to determine that species or habitats should not be protected.
On September 25, 2019, the day before the new rules became effective, the attorneys general from 17 states, including Ohio’s neighbors Michigan and Pennsylvania, sued the Trump Administration in federal court over the changes to the rules. You can find the complaint here. The states assert that the rulemaking violates several federal statutes, including the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs federal administrative agencies. The states further claim that the weakening of protections for endangered and threatened species and their habitats will cause harm to their natural resources, harm to their citizens through environmental degradation, take away the current and future economic benefits of protected species, and increase costs for state governments.
Amidst all the rule changes and lawsuits, members of Congress have been working on their own potential changes to the ESA. Recently, the Congressional Western Caucus, a group of congress members from all around the country who are concerned with land use and resource rights, among other causes, introduced nineteen bills meant to “modernize” the ESA. If you’re interested in the specifics of each bill, they are listed on the Caucus’ website, here. Overall, the bills focus on fixing the ESA by implementing “defined recovery goals” for species, relying on “standardized…publically available” science, and allowing more involvement from states and stakeholders on endangered species decisions.
With action taking place on the administrative, legislative, and judicial levels of the federal government, the way the ESA is written and interpreted seems to be up in the air at present. We will be sure to update the Ag Law Blog with any developments.