Proposals favoring industry over conservation won’t improve the Endangered Species Act.
By The Editorial Board
Portland Press Herald editorial
It says something about the politics of the time that in 1973, the Endangered Species Act passed Congress overwhelmingly – 355-4 in the House of Representatives! – before it was signed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon.
And it says something about the politics of today that the landmark legislation could soon be cut back.
The Trump administration and Republican lawmakers have put forward a series of proposals that would, when taken together, weaken how science is used to protect threatened and endangered species, and hand more oversight to states with serious conflicts of interest.
Just 3 percent of the 2,000 or so species placed on the list have ever improved enough to be taken off, Republicans argue. How is that OK?
The better question is, who would these changes help? Because it’s certainly not wildlife.
HOW THE LAW WORKS
Yes, the Endangered Species Act has saved the gray wolf, peregrine falcon and American alligator, all of which became so successful they were delisted. It is the reason bald eagle sightings, once rare, are now commonplace.
But it has also saved the hundreds of other species on the list, many of which would now be gone without the protections the law provides. Recovery is a decades-long process for most species, but nearly all those on the endangered list are on track.
In fact, only 10 listed species have ever gone extinct – and eight of them may have been gone by the time they made the list.
And even if populations of threatened and endangered species only slowly improve, there are ancillary benefits. Just ask all the species helped by dam removals and river restoration projects aimed at the Atlantic salmon, or all the sportsmen and paddlers who use those waterways.
That’s not to say it’s perfect. Private landowners could use more assistance maintaining the habitat they own. More resources could be put toward bringing landowners, states and industry representatives together when the presence of a species disrupts plans on a parcel of land, in order to avoid lawsuits. The law could use more flexibility, as long as it always leaned toward helping threatened species.
That’s what you’d do if you really wanted to improve the Endangered Species Act.
POWER TO STATES, INDUSTRY
The bills before Congress, however, would only weaken it. Some target specific species that happen to be burdensome to oil and gas companies. One seeks to take power from federal regulators and hand it to states where mining, coal and gas companies wield a lot of influence, and don’t like being inconvenienced by wildlife.
Similarly, the new rules from President Trump would allow cost to be considered when listing a species, injecting politics into a discussion that should be dictated by science, and making it easier for an administration to dismiss concerns over wildlife.
The rules also limit protections for species threatened by climate change, and apply protections to threatened species on a case-by-case basis, rather than uniformly and automatically.
The bill is unlikely to go anywhere, but the new rules can be put in place unilaterally by the president. Those rules also favor industry over conservation, and deny the very real and growing threat climate change poses for thousands of species.
No matter how much they say it, those are not the actions of people looking to improve the law. Forty-five years ago, protecting species at risk of extinction was a bipartisan goal. Now it is very much endangered.