By Charise Johnson, Union of Concerned Scientists
The Trump Administration is threatening species, land conservation, and human health and wellbeing by rolling back our health, safety, and environmental protections. This time the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) are attempting to undercut the scientific basis of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by proposing changes that will make it less effective, even increasing the chances that species will go extinct.
FWS and NMFS jointly issued the proposed rule, “Endangered and Threatened Species: Listing Species and Designating Critical Habitat.” This proposal contains troublesome language around economic consideration and planning for the foreseeable future.
The Departments of Interior and Commerce (via the agencies that implement the law, FWS and NMFS) are proposing to allow for considerations other than science to influence listing decisions. The proposal adds economic considerations in the process for deciding if a species is in fact threatened or endangered, instead of making it a purely scientific decision. Currently, the determination of endangered or threatened status is made without reference to possible economic or other impacts.
The agencies argue in their proposal that including economic information in the listing decision better informs the public. There is, however, ample opportunity in the process of determining how to conserve threatened or endangered species to inform the public of possible economic and other impacts.
Including economic information in the listing decision itself is contrary to the four factors that the law states should be the basis for determining status: “(A) the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range; (B) overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; (C) disease or predation; (D) the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or (E) other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.”
The proposal also limits the extent that the agency can look to potential harms to a species in the foreseeable future which could keep climate change impacts like drought, habitat loss from flooding, heat impacts, and range changes, out of the listing decision and recovery plans for species. The definition of a species as “threatened” includes the phrase “within the foreseeable future”. In other words, it requires the agencies to look ahead as they make listing decisions. The proposal says that the agencies will evaluate what the foreseeable future means on a case-by-case basis, but in describing factors to be considered does not include changing climate (only environmental variability). They also state that the foreseeable future should only include the time period for which predictions are “reliable”.
Climate change is not the same as environmental variability. The ongoing effects of global warming are directional, very broad-scale, and have already posed observable and quantifiable harm to species and their habitats. To not account for a changing climate in listing decisions is to ignore a critical factor relevant to the listing criteria. Furthermore, stating that the timeframe to be considered should be based on when projections are “reliable,” without any indication on what that means, is being intentionally vague. It should be sufficient to say that the timeframe should be based on the best science available.
Voice your concerns
The Endangered Species Act has prevented 99% of species listed under the law from going extinct, and it has done so by basing decisions solely on the best available science, without reference to economic impacts. The proposed changes will weaken the ability of the FWS and NMFS to make decisions informed by science when implementing the Endangered Species Act, as well as send a loud message to the public that economic considerations will prevail over scientific evidence, even at the cost of an entire ecosystem and the species dependent upon it. Fortunately, there is a way we can voice our concerns and block these changes from taking place. There is still time to submit a public comment to the record, but the comment period for the proposed rule ends September 24th. UCS has created an public comment guide for tips on writing a strong comment for this particular proposed rule, which can be found here.