Sweeping changes announced Monday in the implementation of the Endangered Species Act could have a major impact in how Utah’s imperiled plants and animals are managed, although it’s too early to tell exactly how.
Depending on whom you ask, the regulatory rollback unveiled by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt could usher many rare species over the brink or could improve their chances of recovery.
The 1973 bedrock environmental law helped rescue the desert tortoise, bonytail chub, California condor and other native Utah species from extinction. In recent decades, though, the ESA has been “weaponized” to obstruct development without really restoring wildlife and plants, critics have long complained.
The Trump administration’s new rules lower protections for species listed as “threatened,” reduce federal agencies’ obligations to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when reviewing projects that could affect listed and candidate species, allow for reviews of economic impacts associated with listing decisions, and bar consideration of climate change in deciding whether a species warrants protection.
These changes amount to a wholesale rollback that could give industry and local interests undue influence in whether to list a species and how they are managed once they are listed, according to Noah Greenwald, endangered species coordinator for the Center for Biological Diversity. He singled out the case of two species of beardtongue wildflowers that grow only near oil shale outcroppings in the Uinta Basin.
These desert flowers, which are on-again-off-again candidates for ESA listing, would face an existential threat if oil shale mining ever takes off in Utah. Yet under the new listing rules, which bar “speculative” evidence, that threat would not be taken into account unless the bulldozers are poised to scrape up the flowers’ habitat, according to Greenwald.
“If you were giving the benefit to those species, you would give them protection because it’s a constant threat that there is going to be further oil shale development,” he said. “But under the Trump administration, they say, ‘We don’t know for sure; therefore no protections.’ I can see them denying penstemons [beardtongues]. They recently did this with some Utah plants in the San Francisco Mountains. ... It’s just not a precautionary way to do it.”
For their part, Utah officials support the rule changes but were not prepared Monday to explain how they might affect management of prairie dogs, wolverines, June suckers, razorback suckers, beardtongues, boreal toads, sage grouses and other imperiled species relevant to Utah.
“With the information provided today, we’re working to review how these changes may influence our state program and the ongoing coordination we have with our federal partners,” said Nathan Schwebach, spokesman for the Utah Department of Natural Resources.
Monday’s move was a win for property rights, according to Jonathan Wood, an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation who long has sought to overturn blanket prohibitions on “taking” animals listed as threatened.
“The previous rule treated critically endangered species the same as those facing only remote risks. Because an endangered species’ recovery meant no change in regulation, the rule undermined property rights and denied property owners any reward for helping that recovery,” said Wood, who represented southern Utah landowners in a suit over federal protection of Utah prairie dogs.
“The new rule aligns the incentives of landowners with the interests of species,” he added. “This promises to significantly boost the rate at which we recover endangered species, because the primary challenge for recovering species is protecting and restoring habitat on private lands.”
Tony Frates of the Utah Native Plant Society was not impressed with the rule changes, noting that the ESA was designed to protect ecosystems, not just recover endangered species.
“Congress has continually undermined the ESA by not adequately funding it,” he said. “If the Trump administration wanted to make some positive changes, they would properly fund the work of the [Fish and Wildlife Service] to resolve some of the backlog and other problems.”