The Trump administration wants to make major changes to the way endangered animals and plants are protected, a move hailed by the president's allies but decried by conservationists as a disastrous next step in the administration's attempts to dismantle environmental protections.
The changes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), announced Thursday, would allow officials to raise economic considerations when choosing to list a plant or animal as endangered — something that's not currently a part of the calculus. It would also limit what can be listed as critical habitat for endangered species, and end the practice of giving “threatened” species the same protections as “endangered” species.
The Trump administration described the changes — which still have to go through a 60-day public comment period before being finalized — as a boon for conservation. Greg Sheehan, a deputy director at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement that the changes were designed to "produce the best conservation results for the species while reducing the regulatory burden on the American people."
And Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who has pushed for changes to the ESA, praised the proposed rules modifications.
“The Trump administration is taking steps to make the implementation of the Endangered Species Act work better,” Barrasso said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “This proposal is a good start, but the administration is limited by an existing law that needs to be updated.”
But conservation groups strongly disagreed. Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement that “these proposals would slam a wrecking ball into the most crucial protections for our most endangered wildlife.”
Rebecca Riley, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), told BuzzFeed News that the changes “will make it much harder to save species going forward.” The proposal, she said, is “aimed at exempting climate change from the ESA" and would allow people "to destroy more critical habitat and still be in compliance with the law.”
“I was surprised by the breadth of the rule changes,” Riley continued. “We were not aware of how many parts of the ESA they were targeting. And they’re targeting everything they can.”
Trump has made slashing regulation a cornerstone of his administration, and it has consistently been an area where he has scored victories. So far, he has reduced the size of two national monuments in Utah, opened the door to more mining on public land, and proposed expanding offshore oil drilling to much of the US coasts.
His administration's efforts to alter the Endangered Species Act fit into that broader effort; the policy has long been controversial and is often blamed by rural communities for decimating their economies. Listings for animals such as the northern spotted owl and the desert tortoise still rankle some rural westerners decades later and have been at the heart of numerous conflicts, both in the courts and on the ranges.
The Trump administration cast Thursday's proposal as a direct response to, and solution for, conflict. In a press call Thursday morning, David Bernhardt, a deputy secretary at the Interior Department, said that the rules would reduce the “conflict and uncertainty” that has characterized the ESA, the Associated Press reported.
Critics, however, disagreed. Marjorie Mulhall, a policy director for conservation advocacy group EarthJustice, described the changes as an "attempted erosion of the law" and "another handout to extractive industries by President Trump and Secretary Zinke at the expense of imperiled wildlife."
And Riley, of the NRDC, added that in the future "we’re going to propose new species that are going to need protection and they’re going to say no."
"There’s no question that these rules are designed to decrease protections for endangered species," she added. "And the Trump administration is serving the interests of industry and polluters at the expense of endangered species."