The U.S. Department of the Interior announced a significant rollback of the Endangered Species Act on Monday, the most significant change to one of the nation’s landmark conservation laws in its 46-year history.
The announcement — which comes after years of lobbying by the likes of former Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and Sen. John Barrasso — applies to several specific provisions of the law that have been perceived by critics to stymie economic development and place onerous burdens on industries like oil and gas.
The announced changes, according to a press release, include how species are added to or removed from the act’s protections, how the agency designates critical habitat for those species, and how heavily the consultations of other federal agencies weigh into how the act is implemented — including the effects those decisions have on economic development.
In an announcement Monday morning, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil industry lobbyist appointed to the post in February, said the changes would offer additional flexibility for industry while providing individuals on the ground with more authority to implement the act within their own jurisdictions.
“The best way to uphold the Endangered Species Act is to do everything we can to ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal — recovery of our rarest species,” Bernhardt said in a statement. “The Act’s effectiveness rests on clear, consistent and efficient implementation. An effectively administered Act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation.”
Gov. Mark Gordon praised the decision as well.
“Today’s updates to the implementing regulations of the Endangered Species Act are welcome,” Gordon said in a statement to the Star-Tribune. “Wyoming has always relied on science-based decision making, and we have taken a proactive approach to the management of sensitive species in an effort to avoid the need to list them. These updates to the ESA will further streamline processes and place an emphasis on local management. This has been an ongoing effort of several Wyoming administrations. These updates complement the work of Senator Barrasso in improving the ESA.”
While praised by energy and agriculture groups, the move was almost universally panned by national environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Western Values Project — whose director, Chris Saeger, called the move motivated by Bernhardt’s “former, special interest clients.” States including Massachusetts and California have already stated they will fight the proposed changes in court.
“It’s not so much reform as it is an outright weakening, and an extraordinary one at that,” said Richard Garrett, the Wyoming external affairs director for the Nature Conservancy. “There have been lots of runs made at the Endangered Species Act over the past several years, and I’d say none have been successful primarily because the will of the people has been exerted through their legislators who, in turn, have been reluctant to make these kinds of sweeping changes without the support of the American public behind them.”
Barrasso — who has led efforts to reform the act with assistance from groups like the Western Governors Association — stopped short of a full endorsement of the announcement. In a statement, he said that while the changes were a “good start,” the bedrock of the law itself still needed strengthening to improve the level of collaboration state governments have in implementing the law.
“The administration can only work within the laws Congress has passed,” Barrasso said in a statement to the Star-Tribune. “These new Endangered Species Act rules are meant to clarify and improve how the current law is carried out. The administration cannot rewrite the existing law — only Congress can do that. I want to update the law to give the administration and states additional tools and resources to more effectively recover endangered species. Last year, I released draft legislation to modernize the Endangered Species Act. The draft bill would elevate the role of states and increase transparency. It prioritizes resources to better meet conservation goals. The Trump administration is doing its part to make the Endangered Species Act work better. Congress should as well.”
For states like Wyoming, this concern has been most publicly elevated in the yearslong debate about protections around grizzly populations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In a reprise of the back-and-forth seen in the courts over the past several years, the grizzly bear was once again relisted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as an endangered species last week, despite the species’ sizable recovery over the course of the Endangered Species Act.
States like Wyoming have since lobbied for more input on how the Endangered Species Act is implemented, and though Gordon told the Star-Tribune he felt the act as originally written was a “well-intentioned, needed and good law,” he said the law has evolved and been modified through a number of legal actions over the years to the point where implementation of the act has become “unwieldy and inflexible.”
“In the Governor’s opinion, an opportunity to rewrite the law would bring it back to its original mission,” a spokesman for Gordon’s office said in a statement.
However, for conservationists, any rollback of protections for wildlife constitutes a tipping of the balance between conservation and economic development in favor of energy interests — a debate that Garrett says has been a catalyst in beginning discussions about migration corridors in the southwestern corner of Wyoming this summer.
Though the rule changes do offer space for more agencies to cooperate with one another, Garrett noted rule changes also fail to take into account the effects climate change will have on various species while simultaneously offering undue amounts of leeway to private economic interests — something he believes could open the door to decisions that can negatively affect wildlife.
A United Nations report warned in May that more than 1 million plants and animals globally face extinction, some within decades, owning to human development, climate change and other threats. The report called the rate of species loss a record.
“Any time you can get groups like the Forest Service and BLM to the table and talking to you, that’s great,” Garrett said. “But when the Department of Commerce steps up and makes that part co-equal with the protection of species, that’s when that collaboration becomes potentially problematic.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.