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Defending the Endangered Species Act to Protect Imperiled Species

Earlier this year, we asked you to help us remind Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke that citizens deserve a voice in decisions impacting our collective natural resources. Now, we have another opportunity to speak up for our natural resources by telling Secretary Zinke and U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that we support the Endangered Species Act (ESA), that we believe in the Act’s effectiveness, and that we want to protect species from destructive federal actions. Speak up today!

A large bird with white feathers on its head and neck, and brown feathers on its body, opens its beak as it faces the camera.
Bald eagle. Photo: William C. Gladish

The ESA is one of the most essential environmental laws of our time. Scientists have estimated that, if not for the Act, 227 species who walk the planet today would be extinct. What’s more, the ESA has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of its listed species. For example, the bald eagle once teetered on the brink of extinction due to exposure to the manufactured compound DDT, but our national symbol of freedom and survival found salvation when it became a listed, protected species under the ESA. Today, the bald eagle is thriving in the wild.

Despite the ESA’s success in protecting endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released revisions to the agency regulations implementing the ESA provisions in July. These new regulations could greatly impact the future of the Act’s effectiveness and the species relying on its current regulations to survive in an increasingly hostile environment.

As we strive to protect all forms of life, Wildlands Network is deeply disturbed by these proposed changes. We encourage you to join us in asking Secretaries Zinke and Ross to withdraw the harmful proposals. Stand with us, and write today!

Limiting Agency Review of Potentially Harmful Actions

One of the major changes the FWS proposes is altering how Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act is implemented. This particular section—also called the “consultation provision”—is critical to protecting endangered species because it requires that federal wildlife agencies review potential actions that will affect species or their habitat.

Two red wolves, one in front of the other, stand on a patch of dirt surrounded by greenery.
Red wolves, at risk of losing critical protections under the Endangered Species Act. Photo: Ron Sutherland.

Currently, agencies are required to use the best available science in project consultations and to give the benefit of the doubt on a project to the species. This consultation provision is essentially a check on the federal government’s power, ensuring it can’t act with impunity when carrying out actions that could harm already imperiled species.

The FWS proposes limiting this agency review in several ways:

  1. Disregarding climate change: The FWS suggests changes that would disregard the harm caused by federal actions if those harms are manifested through “global processes.” The FWS does not directly define “global processes,” but it appears to eliminate the need to consider how climate change impacts imperiled species.
  2. Limiting mitigation measures: The FWS also suggests including language that allows proposals to move forward—even if those proposals could harm species—with an uncertain and undefined promise of mitigating the adverse impacts of those proposals.
  3. Ignoring habitat loss over time: Finally, the FWS proposes restricting the consultation to only federal agency actions that “diminish the value of the critical habitat as a whole.” This proposed change ignores habitat changes over time, which is concerning since habitat loss occurs incrementally project-by-project, driving species toward extinction with each new proposal.

Politicizing Listing Decisions and Limiting Key Habitat Designations

Jaguar walking cautiously on a rocky dirt road
Wild jaguar, another endangered species, captured by a remote camera. Photo: Northern Jaguar Project/Naturalia

Beyond those changes to Section 7, the FWS suggests changes to Section 4 of the ESA, fundamentally altering the way the agency designates critical habitat.

  1. Considering the economic impact of listing a species: The service proposes eliminating regulatory language that prohibits consideration of the possible economic impacts when listing a species. Currently, this decision must be based solely on the “best scientific and commercial data available.” Adding in a cost-benefit analysis to a listing decision is likely to politicize the listing process, which could ultimately do more harm than good for a species in need of federal protections.
  2. Limiting consideration of future habitat changes: Additionally, the FWS proposes redefining the term “foreseeable future” and including the word “probable.” We interpret this as a means of allowing the agency to limit the analyses for species threatened by climate change. The agency goes on to propose  limiting the designation of unoccupied territory, which threatens species recovery by allowing the FWS to not consider potentially suitable habitat in the future. Again, as species continue to be squeezed into smaller and smaller habitats, unoccupied territory could be the only link to survival. By denying that potential key piece of habitat, we are threatening rather than promoting species recovery—as the Endangered Species Act originally intended.

Rescinding Automatic Protections During Listing Decisions

The FWS also proposes rescinding the “blanket 4(d) rule,” which automatically extends protection to threatened species under Section 4(d) of the ESA. The rule was designed to help ensure that no harm would come to species while the FWS considered species-specific recommendations. Rescinding this automatic protection could expose threatened species to increased risk, undermining recovery targets and potentially moving these threatened species toward extinction rather than recovery.

A black and white whale's head is visible above blue ocean water.
Southern Resident Orca, an endangered species. Photo: Gail Hampshire

The proposal by the FWS would require them to issue separate, individual rules specifying prohibited activities, demanding more time and effort from an agency already stretched thin, thereby putting species at risk of further harm.

Additionally, the proposed change to the 4(d) rule undermines the incentives for private citizens to undertake voluntary conservation efforts, including safe harbor agreements; exposes the decision to political pressure from special interest lobbying groups; and undermines the listing decision itself by limiting protections for species.

Stand With Us for Wildlife

Wildlands Network strongly recommends that the above FWS proposals be withdrawn. These proposals undermine the admirable goals of the ESA and threaten species across the nation. If such changes are accepted, they will ultimately be more costly for both humans and species in the end.

Tell Secretary Zinke and Secretary Ross you support the ESA’s abilities to provide strong federal protections for imperiled wildlife. Tell them you believe the proposed changes undermine the Act’s effectiveness.

We ask you to join us, using your pens and your computers, to tell Secretary Zinke and Secretary Ross that we support the ESA’s abilities to provide strong federal protections for imperiled wildlife. Tell them we believe the proposed changes undermine the Act’s effectiveness. Ask them to support stronger, more effective regulations to help species recover and withdraw the current proposed changes that threaten to undermine the conservation of species and the integrity of the listing process and critical habitat designation. Use your voices to support our natural resources and protect our country’s legacy of protecting and recovering species.

Comments are due on September 24 by midnight Eastern time. Write today!

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