Changes to regulations about critical habitat and consideration for economic interests threaten to upend more than 45 years of conservation success. But the worst may still be to come.

bald eagle

It took just 30 minutes for Trump administration officials to announce dramatic steps to undermine more than 45 years of successful conservation policy under the Endangered Species Act.

In an abbreviated half-hour press conference on Monday, August 12, officials from the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a series of new regulations critics say will put economic interests before species recovery and threaten the efficiency of all species protections.

Tellingly, many of the regulatory changes appear to have been written specifically to cater to business interests. They will “provide regulatory assurances and protection for both endangered species and the businesses [emphasis added] who rely on the use of federal and private lands,” Karen Budd-Falen, Interior’s deputy solicitor for fish, wildlife and parks, said in her introduction to the press conference.

Budd-Falen is a longstanding opponent of the Endangered Species Act and public lands, whose previous roles include advocating for private-property rights and serving as attorney for the notorious Cliven Bundy family.

The rules also appear to be a sneak attack against federal-level protections. Margaret Everson, Fish and Wildlife’s principal director, said in her remarks that the regulations will “return management of recovered species to the states.”

Numerous critics and studies have shown that most states are ill equipped to take over federal responsibility for protecting endangered species. The prospect of state management was not discussed further in the press conference. Prior to joining the Service last year, one of Everson’s last duties as a private consultant was speaking at a legal education course sponsored by Safari Club International, a pro-hunting organization with a record of fights against the Endangered Species Act.

The new regulations, which were discussed in what little detail the press conference would allow, include changes to the way critical habitat is determined, limitations on protecting species based on “speculative” future threats (e.g., climate change), consideration for some economic interests when considering species protections, and changes in the way threatened species (those likely to become endangered) are managed.

Gary Frazer, Fish and Wildlife’s assistant director for endangered species, said during the event that “nothing in here is a radical change from how we have been listing species in the last decade or so,” but conservation experts obviously disagreed — and many groups have already promised lawsuits.

Democrats, meanwhile, have vowed to block the the new regulations.

Legal and political resistance aside, these changes are final upon publication in the Federal Register this week. They represent devastating changes to the Endangered Species Act — ones many experts predict will severely undermine protections and push numerous species toward, or even into, extinction — at a time when the threats to biodiversity continue to increase at a seemingly exponential rate.

To date the Endangered Species Act, one of the world’s most effective environmental laws, has managed to preserve an estimated 99 percent of listed species, including the Florida manatee, bald eagle, American alligator and many others. But in the process it’s also earned the ire of a wide range of corporate interests, who have occasionally been blocked from developing profitable projects that would have harmed or wiped out threatened species. Under the Trump administration and Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, a former fossil-fuel industry lobbyist, those corporate interests have now found themselves gleefully back in the driver’s seat. As a result, our nation’s imperiled wildlife may soon be roadkill.

John R. Platt

is the editor of The Revelator. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon, Motherboard, and numerous other magazines and publications. His “Extinction Countdown” column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.

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