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Washington, 16 other states sue to block changes to Endangered Species Act

In this July 31, 2015 file photo, an orca whale "spyhops," a vertical partial-rise out of the water, in the Salish Sea in the San Juan Islands. Southern Resident orcas are critically endangered, after their numbers have dwindled to 73.
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press
In this July 31, 2015 file photo, an orca whale "spyhops," a vertical partial-rise out of the water, in the Salish Sea in the San Juan Islands. Southern Resident orcas are critically endangered, after their numbers have dwindled to 73.

Editor's note: Gene Johnson of The Associated Press wrote much of the story accompanying this audio.

SEATTLE (AP) — Seventeen states sued the Trump administration Wednesday to block rules weakening the Endangered Species Act, saying the changes would make it tougher to protect wildlife even in the midst of a global extinction crisis.

The case cites 49 endangered species here, among them Southern Resident killer whales and several species of salmon. 

The lawsuit, in federal court in San Francisco, follows a similar challenge filed last month by several environmental groups, including Earthjustice.

"When you start whittling away at protections, and when you have administration officials saying that they're looking at more regulatory changes, you can see where this administration is trying to go,” said Kristin Boyles, an attorney with the nonprofit Earthjustice. “Instead of trying to get Congress to amend a law, they're trying to take a shortcut, a backdoor to undermining its enforcement and its application."

The new rules begin taking effect Thursday. They for the first time allow officials to consider how much it would cost to save a species. They also remove blanket protections for animals newly listed as threatened and make it easier for creatures to be removed from the protected list.

“It’s a death by a thousand cuts for the Endangered Species Act,” said Democratic Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, announcing the lawsuit in a Seattle news conference.

Ferguson added that this "back door" approach to changing federal laws is something the Trump administration has done repeatedly — and something Ferguson has repeatedly challenged.  He says Wednesday's suit is his 50th against the Trump administration — and the 26th related to the environment.   

The law, signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973, has been credited with helping prevent the extinction of more than 220 species, including bald eagles, grizzly bears and humpback whales. It requires the government to list species that are endangered or threatened. The law also protects about 1,600 plant and animal species, designates habitat protections for them, and assesses whether federal activities will hurt them.

Critics have long complained that the environmentalists have weaponized the law to block economic activity such as logging and mining, infringing on property rights. The Trump administration and congressional Republicans have said the new rules will improve the law’s enforcement.

The revisions “fit squarely within the President’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said when the changes were announced last month.

Scientists say that globally about 1 million species are at risk of extinction, mainly because of habitat destruction by humans, overfishing and climate change.

The states challenging Trump’s rules are California, Massachusetts, Maryland, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. The District of Columbia and New York City were also named as plaintiffs.

They argue that the rules changes contradict the goals of the Endangered Species Act and that the administration failed to provide a reasoned basis for the changes or analyze their environmental impacts as required by federal law.

The lawsuit cites challenges faced by creatures that include piping plovers in Rhode Island, orca whales in Washington state and desert tortoises in the Mojave Desert in Nevada.

“We are running out of time,” said Michael Ross, vice chairman of the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe in Washington. “These changes aren’t in the right direction.”

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to