November 30, 2020

Seesaw Regulation Under the Endangered Species Act: Is the Act Itself Endangered?

Posted on November 30, 2021 by Richard Horder

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is credited with saving the American bald eagle, as well as the California condor, grizzly bear, and northern gray wolf. Over fifty-five species, including the humpback whale and American alligator, have escaped near extinction after being placed on the endangered species list. The ESA was passed into law in 1973 by an unlikely champion of the environment, former President Richard Nixon. But what started as a historic bipartisan achievement has recently devolved into a political seesaw.  Over the last 45 years, the protections the statute affords have been slowly eroded and built up again, changing with every administration. Under the Trump administration, however, the deregulation has been wholesale.

In the past four years, fourteen species have been removed from the ESA’s List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife, and seven have been downgraded from endangered to threatened. These changes are not necessarily bad—it means, at least in theory, that species have recovered enough to warrant less protection. However, when EPA removed the gray wolf from the endangered species list on October 29 of this year, peer-reviewed commissions by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as well as independent studies found the action largely unjustified by science and inconsistent with biologically informed policy, and that the proposal to delist contained “substantial errors” and allegedly misrepresented the species’ recovery progress.

Perhaps more concerning has been the changes in how the ESA is implemented as a whole. In 2019, FWS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced major changes to Sections 4 and 7 of the ESA, which deal with adding and removing species from protection, designating critical habitat, consultations with other federal agencies, and more. In 2020, the agencies narrowed the regulatory definition of the term “habitat” and limited the ability to designate “critical habitat”—areas essential to species’ conservation and recovery. For the first time in the statute’s 47 year history, regulators are allowed to conduct economic assessments when deciding whether a species warrants protection. The changes make it harder to factor in the effects of climate change in critical decisions. Protections for species categorized as “threatened” will be decided on a “case-by-case” basis instead of automatically receiving the same protections as species in the “endangered” category.

While the Department of Interior has touted these changes as “easing the regulatory burden on the American public,” environmental advocates and experts see it differently, complaining that the ESA has become more industry-friendly and much less effective at protecting wildlife.  Advocates hope that President-elect Joe Biden will reinstate and strengthen ESA regulations. The League of Conservation Voters, a political action committee that works to elect leaders committed to solving the climate crisis, officially endorsed Biden and gave him a lifetime score of 83%, indicating a strong record on environmental and wildlife issues. Biden himself responded to the ESA changes proposed in August of this year, tweeting: “For decades, the Endangered Species Act has protected our most vulnerable wildlife from extinction. Now, President Trump wants to throw it all away. At a time when climate change is pushing our planet to the brink, we should strengthen protections—not weaken them.” Only time will tell what the next tilt in the seesaw will bring.