The Department of the Interior last week announced that by administrative fiat it will make the most significant changes to Endangered Species Act rules in nearly a half century, stripping the longtime weapon used to prevent extinction of mammals and others of much of its strength.
The action was welcomed by Wyoming’s top officials and decried by conservationists.
Trump Administration revamping of regulations determining species protection would change how critical habitat is defined, for the first time permit economic impacts will be considered in listing a species, make it easier to remove a species from the list, and make it more difficult to categorize a species as threatened.
Probably more than most states, Wyoming has been at the center of Endangered Species issues surrounding grizzly bears, wolves, sage grouse and black-footed ferrets.
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, who has pushed for changes in Congress, along with fellow Sen. Mike Enzi, Gov. Mark Gordon and U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, all praised the declaration from Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt.
Barrasso said new rules are welcome and should make the Act “work better for people and wildlife. These final rules are a good start.” Still, Barrasso said, the ESA needs updating and Congress needs to do more.
The rules are to be published in the Federal Register and take effect 30 days later, although lawsuits to halt their implementation were immediately planned.
Seen as tilting procedures to the benefit of industry over the welfare of wildlife, fish, insects and other categories, not everyone was as pleased with the diminishment of the Act from its beginnings 46 years ago.
Most Democratic politicians and representatives of environmental groups oppose the steps.
“I know this sounds like the plan of a cartoon villain and not the president of the United States,” said Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey.
Opponents of the changes, which include different state’s legal authorities such as Healey, expect to be party to a lawsuit to halt the policy.
Sides were quickly taken with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the American Petroleum Institute among institutions favoring the changes and organizations such as Defenders of Wildlife and the National Resources Defense Council opposing it.
Taking the teeth out of the Act signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1973, was the object of 800,000 opposition comments and provoked the group Earthjustice to begin preparing a lawsuit.
“This effort to gut protections for endangered and threatened species has the same two features of most Trump Administration actions,” said Drew Caputo, a vice president of Earthjustice. “It’s a gift to industry and it’s illegal.”
The Endangered Species Act is credited with saving the bald eagle and the alligator and rescuing the Yellowstone grizzly bear from near-extinction in the 1970s.
Wyoming’s elected officials are with the Trump Administration.
“While the original goals of the Endangered Species Act are well-intentioned,” Enzi said, “it is not working as intended and needs to be changed. I’m glad the Trump Administration is working to modernize the Endangered Species Act.”
Cheney liked Interior’s action as an “effort to streamline the ESA and bring it into the 21st Century in consultation with the states who are negatively impacted by these mandates.”
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said this is consistent with President Donald Trump’s “mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public.”
Mining, oil and gas interests would be able to proceed with projects in areas where species are endangered and where they would have previously been prohibited from development without thorough review.
Noting Wyoming’s efforts in this area, and the work under his predecessor Gov. Matt Mead, Gov. Mark Gordon said, “Wyoming is a leader in wildlife management and conservation with a proven track record.”
He called the changes “welcome” and said they should improve the process. Gordon also praised Barrasso’s work in the Senate on this topic.
Barrasso, who believes further alteration of the Endangered Species Act is warranted said, “The administration cannot rewrite the existing law – only Congress can do that.”
However, many opponents of Bernhardt’s announcement believe these changes do just that.