Environmental Groups Sue Trump Administration Over 'Head-in-the-sand' Approach to Protecting Endangered Species

Environmental groups have sued the Trump administration to try and prevent it from weakening the Endangered Species Act (ESA)—a key piece of conservation legislation which has spared hundreds of species from extinction since being introduced in 1973.

Earlier this month, the administration finalized changes to a set of regulations which would diminish the protections afforded to threatened species and undermine the process for designating protected habitats, according to the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI.)

The changes open the door for business to weigh-in on decisions over whether to list a species as endangered and could make it easier for expert voices to be silenced when consultations are held over how industrial and infrastructure projects could affect threatened animals, critics say.

Noah Greenwald, from the CBD, described the changes to the ESA as a "head in the sand approach to climate change," The Guardian reported.

"This decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) eliminates many essential conservation tools that have protected imperiled species and their habitats for decades," Cathy Liss, president of the Animal Welfare Institute, said in a statement.

"With this drastic revision of core components of the ESA, the current administration is favoring industry at the expense of vulnerable wildlife. Increased threats from development and a changing climate necessitate the strong and full enforcement of the ESA now more than ever," Liss said.

In response to the changes, a coalition of environmental groups—including the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD,) Humane Society of the United States and Earthjustice—filed a lawsuit Wednesday in the District Court for the Northern District of California suing the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, Gizmodo reported.

The groups are arguing that that the Trump administration violated the National Environmental Policy Act because it did not conduct a proper examination of the potential environmental impacts of the regulatory changes. Furthermore, the lawsuit alleges that the changes to the law actually violate the ESA itself because they would threaten vulnerable species.

"The new Trump rules don't help wildlife, don't preserve habitat, and ignore the current extinction crisis," Kristen Boyles, an attorney for Earthjustice, told Newsweek. "It's hard to imagine a set of rules less aligned with the law and protection of threatened and endangered species. They can't change the law, so they're trying to change its interpretation—like everything else this administration does, it's a cynical attempt to skirt the rules for private gain."

Greenwald added that with "former oil industry lobbyist" David Bernhardt at the helm of the U.S. Department of the Interior—which includes the USFWS—"it's no surprise these regulations undercut protections for endangered species and in particular those impacted by the climate crisis. Trump promised to drain the swamp, but he's filled it up and the nation's most endangered species from polar bears to coral will pay the price," he told Newsweek.

The Endangered Species Act is a key piece of legislation which is relevant to both domestic and International conservation efforts.

According to the USFWS website, the act "aims to provide a framework to conserve and protect endangered and threatened species, and their habitats. By providing States with financial assistance and incentives to develop and maintain conservation programs the Act serves as a method to meet many of the United States' international responsibilities to treaties and conventions such as the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Western Hemisphere Convention."

Since being introduced, the act has proved to be extremely effective sparing more than 99 percent of the threatened animals and plants protected by the law, according to the AWI. Many iconic species—including the bald eagle, American alligator, American gray wolf and humpback whale' have made dramatic comebacks as a result of the Act.

Furthermore, the Act appears to have widespread support among the public. One 2018 survey found that four out of five Americans were in favor of the ESA and more than 800,000 people formally submitted public comments opposing the changes, which the USFWS ignored, in addition to letters signed by 105 U.S. representatives and 34 senators. Ten states have also formally opposed the weakening of the act, as have more than 30 tribal nations, according to the AWI.

The fight to halt the changes to the ESA comes soon after the release of a landmark U.S. report which warned that climate change and various human activities are threatening the existence of up to a million species around the world.

"The new rules move the Endangered Species Act dangerously away from the basis in sound science and precaution that has made the Act so effective," Karimah Schoenhut, an attorney for Sierra Club, one of the groups suing the government, told Newsweek. "More than 99 percent of animals, plants and insects protected by the law have been saved from extinction."

"The ESA was intended to protect species and their habitats in time to prevent extinction and to ensure those species will be thriving in the long term. It's about taking action before it's too late," Schoenhut said. "The new rules open the door to political decisions couched as claims that threats to species are too uncertain to address. In the face of the climate crisis, the result of this abandonment of responsibility will be extinction."

The graphic below, provided by Statista, illustrates how the number of endangered species in the U.S. has been increasing.

endangered species statista
The number of endangered species in the U.S. has been increasing. Statista

Several other lawsuits have been launched in the U.S. to protect individual species under threat, such as California's famous Joshua trees which could well disappear as a result of climate change.

Earlier this month, the USFWS said that the Joshua tree does not require protection under the ESA, in response to the efforts of environmental groups who wanted to list the tree as a threatened species, the Palm Springs Desert Sun reported.

"It appears that this administration is ignoring the science because they don't believe in climate change," Taylor Jones, from WildEarth Guardians, one of the groups suing the government, told The Guardian. "This is blatant disregard of the climate crisis."

Nevertheless, some experts are warning that the impact of climate change on threatened species is going to be so severe that whether or not they are protected by the ESA will make little difference in the long run.

"Climate change is basically going to swamp the Endangered Species Act as it's not equipped to deal with global-scale disruptions," J.B. Ruhl, an environmental law expert at Vanderbilt University, told The Guardian. "The act can't stop that."

loggerhead turtle
Loggerhead turtle hatchling swims in the waters off Boca Raton, Florida. This species is listed as threatened under the ESA. Joe Raedle/Getty Image

This article was updated to include an infographic and additional comments from Noah Greenwald.