If you’ve ever marveled at the sight of a bald eagle or a lynx or a black-footed ferret in Colorado, thank the Endangered Species Act.
The 1973 law is credited with staving off the extinction of thousands of endangered and threatened species, in large part because it can require wide tracts be put off limits to development and other uses in order to preserve habitat for listed plants and animals.
But the Trump administration and Republican lawmakers say the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is overdue for major reform, and they’re now eyeing changes that would eliminate existing protections for threatened species and give greater weight to business interests at the expense of species at risk.
In Colorado, there are 34 species listed as either endangered or threatened, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The proposed changes would undermine environmental protections and put money ahead of these plants and animals, local conservationists warn.
“It’ll impact Colorado by making it much harder to conserve threatened and endangered species and generally will prioritize oil and gas drilling, and other kinds of development, over conservation,” said Megan Mueller, senior conservation biologist with the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Wild.
“It seems to me the idea is to really start giving priority to other uses of public lands over protecting endangered species habitat.”
There is significant recent precedent for such a shift, as President Trump has guided what conservationists describe as a continuing wrecking ball through environmental stewardship in the U.S.
Just 10 days after Trump took office, the White House announced plans to reorganize the National Park Service and the Department of Interior. Trump soon after repealed rules banning industry from dumping waste into waterways. Ryan Zinke, who believes climate change is “not proven science,” was confirmed as Trump’s secretary of the interior, and has since overseen the review of national monuments to allow for oil and gas extraction and coal mining, plus the opening of previously preserved Arctic waters for drilling.
Now, sponsors of the ESA roll-backs — the House Western Caucus has put forth a package of nine bills that are now under review — say the ESA is too inflexible and has given states one-size-fits-all mandates that don’t respect the distinct natural differences among various corners of the country.
Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah and the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, told ABC News, “It’s past time for reform. The law needs to be updated to ensure it maintains its original intent and focus of species recovery and not simply serve as a tool for endless litigation.”
An Ohio State University survey found that 83 percent of Americans support the ESA, but U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Principal Deputy Director Greg Sheehan said it needs significant deregulation.
“We are proposing these improvements to produce the best conservation results for the species while reducing the regulatory burden on the American people,” he said when the government announced the proposal July 19.
The proposed reforms seem to be at odds, though, with some of the provisions that enabled the recoveries of iconic American species like the bald eagle and grizzly bear, which both were delisted as endangered in the last decade, as well as the protection of Colorado species including the Canada lynx and greenback cutthroat trout, the official state fish.
Most notable among these deregulatory plans is the striking of language requiring ESA protections be evaluated exclusively on the basis of science, and “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.”
Additionally, species listed as threatened — as in, those considered at a slightly lesser risk than endangered species, but protected on nearly the same level — would be evaluated on short-term bases and without projection into the future. “The Services will avoid speculating as to what is hypothetically possible,” one proposed rule change states.
“It’s short-sighted ideological interests versus common-sense approaches to public land management,” said Luke Schafer, West Slope director with the group Conservation Colorado. “The fact of the matter is we can develop oil and gas resources in a common-sense manner while still protecting habitat. There don’t need to be losers” in the equation.
The losers, should the proposed changes come to pass, he continued, won’t just be the plants and animals and those people that appreciate seeing them. Conservationists say it’s also economically prudent to preserve natural habitats that Colorado’s flora, fauna, residents and tourists all enjoy.
“The administration’s idea that we can have operators, whether it be oil and gas or other development, destroying habitat but not at all establishing some conservation gain — those things add up over time and eventually someone has to pay,” Schafer says, citing the example of the sage grouse, a bird on its way back from the brink in the American west.
“The sage grouse will certainly pay, but we’ll pay, too, if the sage grouse continues to suffer declines. We’ll be complicit in the demise of a species that’s lived here for the last 300,000 years.”
The cost of species and habitat conservation only goes up over time, Schafer noted. Waiting until a species is on the brink of extinction means the population becomes much more difficult and expensive to restore.
And this is a particularly bad time to be gutting long-range protections for at-risk species, Mueller added.
As the climate warms and human population grows and natural spaces become developed, plants and animals are now 100 times more likely to go extinct than they ever were before, CNN found. The international Biological Extinction conference showed that half of all species could be extinct by century’s end.
“The vast majority of species that are going extinct right now are going extinct because of human impacts — habitat loss and fragmentation, and climate change. That’s the reason. (The Trump administration) is working behind the scenes to decrease and take apart the existing protections we have left,” Mueller said.
Colorado conservationists credit the ESA for the fact that the state hasn’t had any species extinctions in recent memory.
Other species in Colorado, including the sage grouse, are at risk but remain unlisted. In the case of the sage grouse, a coalition of business, governmental and environmental interests developed a plan to restore the population in Colorado and 10 other western states.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave $40 million to that effort in 2015, but much of the work is being undone; Zinke has already ordered the Bureau of Land Management to review those plans and develop an alternative. The BLM is accepting public comment on that until Thursday.
Reached for comment this week on the potential ESA overhaul, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office said Colorado officials weren’t consulted ahead of the announced proposal, and that it’s still reviewing the plans.
Colorado scientists who work in this field, however, say no further review is needed and that the proposal was written with a clear and specific aim.
“The idea is that we’ll do less work on avoiding the situations that put species, and us, in the most peril,” Schafer said. “It makes no sense from an investment strategy and no sense from a public policy perspective. It’s a short-sighted viewpoint.”