The Trump Administration Finds a New Target: Endangered Species
The whooping crane (Grus americana) is the tallest bird in North America, standing nearly five feet, with snow-white plumage, black wing feathers, and a red cap. To initiate mating, whooping cranes perform a marvellous dance, complete with head bobs, high jumps, and pirouettes. Ornithologists believe that in 1942 only twenty-two birds remained across the continent, the result of the destruction of habitat and overhunting. The bird eventually became one of the first animals to be protected under the 1973 Endangered Species Act (it was first protected by a late-sixties precursor to the act, which lawmakers, including President Richard Nixon, had deemed insufficient), but its recovery was slow. By the spring of 1976, federal breeding and recovery programs were under way, but there were still fewer than a hundred whoopers in the wild. Tex, a female whooping crane at the San Antonio Zoo, was part of the trouble. Her genes were crucial to furthering the population, but she thought she was human (she had been reared by people) and would not pair with a mate. Then a young ornithologist named George Archibald had an idea. He would woo Tex, and, if she bonded with him, he thought, she would ovulate, in which case his colleagues could artificially inseminate her. As he later told this magazine, he slept in her birdhouse for a month, talking to her all the time; and they built a nest together out of corncobs and hay. Most important, he danced.
The plan worked. The first few eggs that Tex laid did not survive, but, after several years, in 1982, she produced a chick named Gee Whiz. Thanks to the Gee Whiz lineage, and many more decades of federally funded captive-breeding programs (the technicians wear whooper costumes, so the birds seek the right kind of mate), there are eight hundred and forty whooping cranes alive, and five hundred and five that migrate each year between Canada and the Texas coast. The species is still endangered, but the population is growing.
Earlier this week, the Trump Administration finalized what the Associated Press called “the broadest changes in decades” to the regulations guiding enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. The overhaul, expected to take effect next month, reduces protections for endangered and threatened species, while making it easier for companies to build mines and roads, and to drill for oil and gas, on critical habitat. Until now, the act specified that decisions to add species to the list would be made “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.” That phrase has been excised, despite the pleas for its importance in most of the public comments on the proposed rule changes, which were announced last summer. On Monday, the Department of the Interior stated that the act does not prohibit government agencies from collecting and publicizing data about the economic costs of saving a species, “as long as doing so does not influence the listing determination.”
The Endangered Species Act has been a model of environmental legislation for the rest of the world. It has saved more than two hundred species from extinction (ninety-nine per cent of the species it has listed) in its forty-five-year history, including such iconic animals as Florida manatees, grizzly bears, American alligators, black-footed ferrets, and, of course, the bald eagle. Still, the act was far from perfect, and updates were overdue. The world has changed since 1973, when Nixon signed the act into law: the U.S. population has increased from two hundred million to more than three hundred million, and in recent years, scientists have found that animals and plants are going extinct at an accelerating rate, which is already tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past ten million years. In May, a major United Nations report on biodiversity found that climate change—along with other, related forms of environmental degradation—threatens a million more species with extinction, many within a few decades.
Amendments to the Endangered Species Act should have been made to strengthen it rather than weaken its ability to account for the risks of climate change. The act, for instance, stipulates that a “threatened” designation requires the government to analyze whether a species is likely to become endangered within the “foreseeable future.” One of the changes defines “foreseeable” to extend “only so far into the future as the Services can reasonably determine that both the future threats and the species’ responses to those threats are likely.” This allows some wiggle room. Long-range climate projections for events such as glacial melt and extended heat waves could—at least legally—be ignored, particularly if they happened to get in the way of some lucrative (short-term) development project. Another amendment will make it harder to designate a habitat as critical for a species’s survival if that species does not currently occupy it. A third change will prevent a species that is newly listed as threatened from automatically receiving protections from killing, trapping, or other forms of exploitation. Instead, a management plan will be drafted over many months, or even years, on a “case-by-case basis.”
In the past decade, lawmakers in Congress (mostly Republicans) have introduced more than three hundred bills taking aim at the Endangered Species Act. But the Senate has not been willing to take them up—reflecting the act’s bipartisan favor and public support. Now that the Trump Administration has taken action on its own, lawsuits from Democrats and environmental groups will soon begin. Immediately after Monday’s announcement, Maura Healey, the attorney general of Massachusetts, and Xavier Becerra, the attorney general of California, said that they expect other states to join them in a lawsuit against the federal government, arguing that the power to change the act belongs to Congress alone.
Most people would not choose to live and dance with a giant bird, but George Archibald’s ingenuity seems as good an analogy as any for the kind of pragmatic creativity that this country has, on occasion, employed to save at least some of its animals and plants, while simultaneously growing and building at a frenetic clip. But time ran out on the balancing act years ago, and the scales are destroyed. The world faces a crisis in which legally protecting biodiversity—manifested through things like land conservation, better, more balanced agricultural and ranching practices, and the prohibition of fossil-fuel development—is inextricably linked to the health of people and societies. (See: burying beetle, Oklahoma oil fields.)
How to balance people’s needs with those of other species will be a never-ending challenge. (Wind and solar farms also reduce animal and plant habitat.) The Interior Department, led by Secretary David Bernhardt, a former fossil-fuels lobbyist who has been investigated for a possible conflict of interest involving his former client and a tiny endangered fish, stated in Monday’s announcement that the changes to the act improve the listing process by “providing clarity.” And yet, nothing could be clearer than the fact that the balance needs to drastically shift in favor of the natural world, and that a legal framework is necessary for such a shift to occur. Laws cannot save everything. (After Gee Whiz’s birth, Tex was killed when a gaze of raccoons invaded the whoopers’ enclosure.) Many more extinctions are presently in the pipeline. But weakening the Endangered Species Act is the opposite of what’s needed. Whooping cranes winter in Texas on a chain of barrier islands. Those islands are now threatened by rising sea levels.
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