Trump administration changes to the Endangered Species Act could significantly impair future efforts to protect vulnerable species and their habitats in the state. That’s according to wildlife officials who have been poring over hundreds of pages that came with publication of the revised law on Monday.
The endangered species act most famously brought the bald eagle back from the brink of extinction. That’s a success story you can see in abundance here – just look up if you’re near water.
“We probably have more bald eagles in Washington state than anywhere else in the nation,” said Penny Becker, Wildlife Diversity division manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
She says the changes won’t affect the 32 species here that are already listed as threatened or endangered under federal law. It will affect future listings. Washington has at least 10 that are pending, including the island marble butterfly, cutthroat trout and the greater sage grouse.
Still, Becker says these are not her main worry – it's the ones that are not yet on the agency’s radar, but may need protection in the future.
“Whether that be because of climate change, or… a species that we haven’t yet noticed that the populations are crashing or that their habitat is diminishing,” Becker said.
She's especially concerned about the ability to preserve critical habitat moving forward. The revised law makes it more difficult to designate critical habitat, especially if it is not currently used by the species of concern. She says the greater sage grouse – well known for colorful mating displays – is an example of a species that could be especially hard hit by the changes.
“Despite our efforts here in Washington, we’re still seeing a declining population. And some of the species that could most be benefitted by a federal listing are those that have concerns around habitat.
Sage grouse are now found in only four small and relatively isolated populations in Eastern Washington and mostly on private lands. Their current range is about 8 percent of their presumed historic range.
Becker says the department supports some of the goals around efficiency in the new law. Federal officials have been so backlogged that many listings languish for years. A good example is the island marble butterfly, which was rediscovered in 1998 and only exists on San Juan Island. It has a population of just a few hundred, bolstered by a captive rearing program, and has been a candidate for federal protection since 2016.
In addition to changes in how critical habitat is recognized, a letter from Washington state wildlife and ecology officials written in September 2018 outlined numerous concerns about the draft revisions. These include the inclusion of economic analyses in listing decisions and a new definition of “foreseeable future” that could weaken protection under the new law. Becker says many of those concerns remain as her team and other agencies continue to analyze the responses to their comments and the final text of the law.
So far, Washington is not pursuing any legal action. But attorney generals in California and Massachusetts have vowed to file a lawsuit with many other states in the coming weeks.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued a statement in opposition to the new rule, saying the he supports actions that could block this harmful rule from taking effect because it would “gut a bedrock environmental law that has served us for generations and must be protected… It seems clear that this rule is set up to allow the federal government to ignore the threat of climate change and is a blatant attack on science,” the statement said.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement that the changes were "subject to a robust, transparent public process," noting that "significant public input" helped finalize the rules.
“The revisions finalized with this rulemaking fit squarely within the president’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals," Ross said in the statement, according to The Washington Post.
Becker says it will likely take years to see how the changes actually play out. And how they are implemented is likely to depend on who is in the White House after the elections in 2020.