This July, the Trump Administration and the Republican majority in Congress have opened up a series of dangerous attacks on our nation’s most important wildlife law – the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). They aim to weaken the ESA before the November elections if possible, reasoning that a potential change of the Senate or House to a Democratic majority would stymy future attempts to gut the ESA. The New York Times notes that in just two weeks in July, more than two dozen proposals for weakening amendments to the ESA have been proposed by the Trump Administration and Republicans in Congress.
The Trump Administration, under the authority of controversial Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, have proposed new rules for the ESA, which must go through public review before being implemented.
The new rules would:
Both the oil and gas industry and the Farm Bureau have endorsed the Trump Administration’s weakened ESA rules.
Some members of Congress have also stepped up the attacks on the ESA by recently introducing ESA “reform” legislation. Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming introduced broad ESA legislation that would defer decisions to state governments, block listing decisions from litigation (many species have been added to the list when environmental organizations sued to insist on a listing the bureaucracy has balked on), and requires a number of new steps the federal government must take before listing a species, further slowing the process.
But at the Washington DC hearing reviewing the Barrasso legislation, Matt Mead, the Governor of Wyoming, testified on the success the state had had in cooperating on a bipartisan basis in protecting species, signaling there was no need for the Barrasso big axe approach.
Several bills, with similar provisions, have already moved through the House Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Utah’s Representative Bob Bishop, and are pending for floor votes in the House. H.R. 717, for example, would have government weigh the economic costs on whether to list a species as “endangered” and in listing critical habitat for a species. H.R. 3131 would impede successful environmental lawyers from being awarded legal fees for the time and effort expended on lawsuits that the Administration loses due to the government’s activities that have been found by the courts to violate the ESA. H.R. 424 removes the protection of the ESA from the gray wolf, making a comeback in many states due to protection under the Act. There have been additional amendments sought as “riders” on non-related legislation, like the Farm Bill and the National Defense Authorization Act.
Since the current ESA was first passed in 1973 (there was a previous ESA passed in 1969, but the 1973 version really put teeth into the Act), industry and farm groups have repeatedly complained about restrictions on their activities meant to safeguard endangered species and their habitats. For most species in the US, habitat loss is the major cause of endangerment.
The ESA was approved by virtually all the members of Congress in 1973, but sadly the Republicans have for the most part moved away from support, as they have from support of other environmental protections.
Many species of marine mammals are protected both by the ESA and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Most of the great whale species are listed as endangered. Protection was lifted from the gray whale during the Presidency of George H. W. Bush, partly because the species was considered recovered and partly to facilitate offshore oil drilling. The US National Marine Fisheries Service delisted several populations of humpback whales that have recovered, while other populations remain protected. The minke whale is the only species that was never listed, as the minke whale survived the onslaught of commercial whaling relatively unscathed. (Unfortunately, minke whales are now the primary target of whalers in Japan, Iceland and Norway.)
Other marine mammal species listed include the Southern sea otter, the Pacific Northwest resident orca population around Puget Sound, the highly endangered right whale, and the diminutive vaquita porpoise found only in the upper reaches of the Sea of Cortez.
The ESA gives federal protection to any species listed. This protection extends to the habitat of the species, to maintain the ecosystem upon which the species depends. The listing process is designed to consider only the biological status of the species, to avoid political decisions. Major industrial and farm activities can be held up if an endangered species is in the way, leading to calls for more “flexibility” and to place greater weight on the impacts on economic activity, usually greatly exaggerated, when listing or protecting the species.
In the ocean, the oil industry and some commercial fishing concerns express opposition to the ESA. The good news is that many commercial fishing interests recognize the importance of the ESA in, for example, protecting endangered salmon and other commercial species.
Also in the good news department is that several Democrats in Congress are fighting back. Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, for example, is leading an effort to provide more funding for the government agencies responsible for the ESA, reasoning that problems of delays and red tape are due to underfunding of ESA work by those agencies. He has been tweeting a number of great pro-ESA messages, including: “It's thanks to the #EndangeredSpeciesAct that we helped save the bald eagle - an American symbol and one of my favorite birds.” Follow Senator Carper on Twitter.
The protection of endangered and threatened species cannot hinge on whether or not someone’s economic interests would be harmed. These species are on the brink of disappearing forever, and we must do everything we can to safeguard their survival. Wildlife belongs to all of us, but extinction is forever.
Contact your members of Congress, including your House Representative and your two Senators, in Washington DC, urging them to oppose weakening amendments to the ESA. Wildlife, including marine mammals, needs a strong ESA to protect them. Urge them to support more funding to help resolve issues with the ESA.
You can go to their personal websites and leave a message or get their email address. To find and contact your Congress members, go to: