By Thomas Mitchell
When the Interior Department released new rules for enforcing the 45-year-old Endangered Species Act (ESA) this past week, self-styled environmentalists and many in the news media falsely maligned the changes, saying they would require the Fish and Wildlife Service to consider economic impact in deciding whether to list a species as endangered or threatened.
In fact, the press release announcing the finalizing of the new rules specifically states that designations will be based solely on the “best available scientific and commercial information” as the original law dictates. The change simply allows the public to be informed of economic impacts created by the law by removing the phrase “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.”
The rule change proposal noted, “Since 1982, Congress has consistently expressed support for informing the public as to the impacts of regulations in subsequent amendments to statutes and executive orders governing the rulemaking process.” The only change is giving the public more information.
“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. The Act’s effectiveness rests on clear, consistent and efficient implementation,” said Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in the press release. “An effectively administered Act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation.”
Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto reacted on Twitter: “Trump’s gutting of the Endangered Species Act — even as species struggle with the effects of the #ClimateCrisis & human activity — threatens protected species & could put even more plants and animals at risk.”
The rule changes actually should help address a fundamental problem with the enforcement of the ESA up until now — that it focuses almost entirely on limiting any conceivable profitable use of land or water that is “critical habitat” of an endangered or threatened species, thus maintaining a fragile status quo rather than actually encouraging recovery of the species population.
The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), which refers to itself as the home of free market environmentalism, reports that more than 1,600 species are listed under the ESA, but only 39 species have been determined to be recovered since the law passed (half of those mistakenly listed in the first place), while 11 have become extinct. Nevada has 16 endangered species and 11 threatened.
Previously, when states tried to reintroduce endangered species by breeding, the federal government threatened to sue, saying possession of the species required a federal permit, which it refused to issue.
Another significant change requires that when designating critical habitat that the species is actually present or the area has features essential to the species’ conservation.
This addresses issues raised by a Supreme Court case out of Louisiana in which the owner of 1,500 acres of land was prohibited from using the property because it was declared critical habitat for the dusky gopher frog, even though none of the frogs had been seen in the area for 50 years and the land itself could no longer support the frogs.
The case was finally settled in July in the property owner’s favor.
Mark Miller, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation which sued on behalf of the landowners, said of the agreement, “This federal frog feud is over, and property rights and good government win. The government tried to ban development of 1,500 acres of private property at a cost of $34 million in the name of an endangered frog that does not live on the property and cannot survive there. The feds may as well have labeled this Louisiana property critical habitat for a polar bear. It would have done just as much good.”
Also, in the future a species listed as threatened would not be treated as stringently as those listed as endangered, as currently is the case.
Advocates of the changes say this will provide incentives for landowners to help species recover. In the past, landowners confronted with restrictions under the ESA were said to have been incentivized to shoot, shovel and shut up. No species. No restrictions.
“Our interest is getting this landmark wildlife protection law to work better,” said PERC’s executive director Brian Yablonski in a statement. “That means fostering conditions so landowners become more enthusiastic in their role as stewards for species recovery, not worried if they find an endangered species on their land. States and landowners will respond better to carrots, not clubs, in our efforts to improve species recovery results.”
Delisting of species is preferable to merely maintaining the status quo in perpetuity.