After 11th-Hour Rule Change, The Environmental Species Act Now Makes It Harder To Save Endangered Species

Since 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has stood as one of our nation’s most effective and important environmental laws. Passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, the ESA represents a commitment by the American people to work together to protect and restore our most vulnerable fellow species.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, 99% of species protected by the list have avoided extinction. Not until the Trump Administration’s final week in office was it changed.

The change narrows the ESA’s definition of “habitat,” making it more difficult to protect areas as critical habitat for threatened and endangered species. As the Southern Environment Law Center reports, Trump’s rule change limits the scope of “habitat” to areas with “the resources and conditions necessary to support one or more life processes of a species.”

Monarch butterflies are endangered, and much of their critical habitat now goes unprotected.
Source: Adobe Stock/+NatureStock
Monarch butterflies are endangered, and much of their critical habitat now goes unprotected.

Excised from the list of protected areas are those that could be restored or safeguarded to provide additional habitat for future species recovery. Habitat that has been historically used by a species and habitat that could be important as species move in response to threats such as climate change are also cut out of any federal protection.

“The final definition remains very focused on whether an area could support a species today,” said SELC Staff Attorney Ramona McGee. “This could exclude important habitat from protection—including habitat that might become important as an endangered or threatened species shifts its range in response to climate change, as well as habitat that is currently degraded or fragmented and requires restoration to support imperiled species.”

99% of the species that have been added to the ESA list have avoided extinction.
Source: Adobe Stock/Menno Schaefer
99% of the species that have been added to the ESA list have avoided extinction.

Defenders of Wildlife, in the 2019 paper “Defining Habitat in the Endangered Species Act,” points out that habitually incorrect use of the term “habitat” can “lead to misinterpretation of scientific findings and ineffective identification and prioritization of protected areas.”

“How habitat is defined thus has serious implications for species conservation,” DOW writes. “A definition that is too narrow and excludes degraded but restorable habitat, or areas that are likely to become habitat in the foreseeable future, could leave species without protections for areas they will need to be conserved. Such exclusion would be inconsistent with the purpose – and legal requirements – of the ESA.”

The Florida panther is an endangered species.
Source: Adobe Stock/Jo
The Florida panther is an endangered species.

As we face accelerating loss of biodiversity in the United States and the rest of the world due to habitat loss and climate change, protecting remaining habitats is more important than ever. Habitat degradation and loss is currently the leading cause of extinction. How and where we protect those habitats is vital to preventing species from that fate.

“Keeping degraded habitat from being eligible for critical protections could seriously undermine the conservation and recovery of at-risk species,” writes the Southern Environment Law Center. “Erosion controls and development in the Southeast have already damaged places vital to coastal species’ survival—including shorebirds like piping plovers, beach mice like the Alabama beach mouse, and sea turtles like loggerhead turtles.

Gray wolves are an ESA success story.
Source: Adobe Stock/Lori Ellis
Gray wolves are an ESA success story.

“Similarly, many species’ historic habitat ranges will shift as a result of climate change, but the new definition will prevent federal officials from designating areas that are likely to become habitat in the near future due to climate change,” the center continues. “Birds, reptiles, amphibians, marine species, cold-water aquatic species, and high-elevation species will be particularly susceptible to climate-change driven range shifts.”

Join others in sending a message to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), demanding they rollback changes to the ESA. Click below to make a difference.

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