There have been times, of course, when the federal government imposed mandates that turned out to be unnecessary or ineffective. Then there are laws like the Endangered Species Act, one of the most unequivocal success stories in the history of governmental regulation. The humpback whale, the grizzly bear, and America’s national emblem itself, the bald eagle, almost certainly wouldn’t be with us today if President Richard Nixon hadn’t signed this crucial set of wildlife protections into law 46 years ago.
In the vast pantheon of short-sighted and irresponsible policy initiatives undertaken by the Trump administration, its move this week to largely dismantle this historic firewall against wildlife extinction is among the most potentially catastrophic. Environmental groups and some states say they will sue to prevent it, and some congressional Democrats are vowing to fight it. They must.
The 1973 law — which scientists say has also saved the American alligator, the Florida manatee, the California condor and many others — works by protecting not just the endangered animals themselves from hunting, but protecting their habitats from destruction. In an era when the effects of climate change are more obvious by the month, that habitat protection includes looking decades down the road to determine where, for example, polar bears might live when melting sea ice has decimated their current habitats.
The rule changes that were announced Monday by administration officials — including Interior Secretary and former oil lobbyist David Berhardt — will scale back the protections offered to species designated as threatened but not yet endangered. Common sense suggests that move will lead to more species ultimately ending up endangered, since the government will now be less apt to take preventive action before they reach that point.
The changes will also allow the government to consider economic impact, instead of just the science, when studying whether and how to protect a given species. Perhaps most perniciously, the rules will diminish the consideration of long-term climate-change impact when determining how to preserve species and habitats. This from an administration that has already demonstrated a stubborn aversion to the globally accepted facts regarding climate change.
It isn’t hard to see what’s going on here: The administration has already worked at every turn to expose protected lands to oil drilling and other development at the behest of industry. This accelerates that dark agenda.
The Endangered Species Act was a major, thoroughly debated law that was put in place with national consensus and bipartisan backing decades ago. It’s now being unilaterally kneecapped with regulatory sabotage by an administration bent on allowing its industrial taskmasters to dig up, burn through or pave over any protected nature blocking their path.
Environmental-minded plaintiffs and congressional Democrats must make this a fight for survival. For many species out there, it’s exactly that.