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The wolverine is a species currently proposed for listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. CREATISTA/Getty
Trump’s Department of the Interior is seeking to “revise” key, 40-year-old regulations which currently protect more than 300 threatened plant and animal species listed under the 1973 Endangered Species Act, according to a draft document that quietly leaked last week.
The document, a memo from the Interior to the White House, outlines a proposed rule that would virtually eliminate all automatic protections for species listed as “threatened” in the future by the Fish and Wildlife Service, a branch of the Interior. According to the proposal, protections won’t end for current threatened species, but rather only future ones. Before a copy of the proposal was leaked last week, several news outletsreported that protections would end for current threatened species, which we now know is not the case.
Under section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act, the FWS created regulations in 1978 which granted threatened species, or those approaching endangerment, the same blanket protections granted to endangered species. Broadly, these regulations prevent “take” of protected species—death, harm, or harassment from human activity, such as hunting, capturing, and, in some cases, destroying their habitat through development, logging, or other means.
“If you’re a threatened species and you don’t have ‘take’ protections, you don’t really have any protections at all,” Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, tells Mother Jones.
The change could be disastrous for species like the North American wolverine, the gopher tortoise, and the Sierra Nevada red fox, which are proposed for listing, or are being considered for, threatened status in the future. Making things more dire is that extinction rates are only going to worsen as the climate changes. Across the globe, scientists estimate extinction rates today are already between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than they would be without humans on the planet and predict one in six species could face extinction with our current climate trajectory.
The proposed rule would still allow the FWS to grant protections on a case-by-case basis, if they so choose. But, Greenwald interprets the room for exceptions to mean that the proposal is just another example of the Trump administration’s quest to please corporate interests. “It’s going to turn every listing into a negotiation with industry,” he says.
On a practical level, this change could create a bureaucratic nightmare. The process of listing species as threatened is already slow and cumbersome, says Greenwald, and putting the FWS in control of granting protections—or not—on a case-by-case basis may not go so smoothly. “This will certainly be a disaster,” he says.
“Given that there’s a backlog of more than 500 species, this is just going to slow the process down. We know of at least 47 species so far that have gone extinct waiting for protection,” Greenwald says. “The Fish and Wildlife Service, on average, has taken 12 years to protect species under the Endangered Species Act.”
The proposed rule hasn’t yet been published and is still “under inter-agency review,” meaning it “is subject to change,” Gavin Shire, the chief of public affairs at FWS, tells Mother Jones in an email. The administration is “working to develop regulations that improve our implementation of the ESA so that it is clear, unambiguous, consistent and flexible,” Shire adds, and says the changes are meant to encourage collaboration “from a broad range of partners.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.