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Threatened species could lose habitat protections under Department of the Interior proposal

Threatened species could lose habitat protections under Department of the Interior proposal
A California gnatcatcher hangs on to coastal sage scrub before it flits off in Palos Verdes at the Vincente Bluffs Reserve in 2014. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

The Department of the Interior announced Thursday controversial plans to roll back core provisions of the Endangered Species Act, a move aimed at reducing the burdens of such safeguards on landowners, industry and governments.

The proposal calls for rescinding U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service policies that automatically extend habitat protections granted to endangered species to threatened species as well. Instead, Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the agency wants to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to protect habitats of threatened species — animals and plants that scientists believe could soon become endangered.

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The Interior Department plans to work with the Commerce Department to determine whether land currently unoccupied by a threatened species deserves to be classified as a critical habitat and warrants protection.

Bernhardt said the agency was responding to President Trump’s order a year ago directing federal agencies to revise regulations that were confusing and that discourage public participation in conservation efforts.

“We hope these proposals ameliorate some of the burdens, conflict and uncertainty within our current regulatory structure,” Bernhardt said. “A goal is to increase public buy-in so that people don’t see it in such an adversarial light.”

The proposal would not affect species already listed as threatened — or critical habitats set aside for them — such as Western desert tortoises struggling to survive in the Southern California desert as temperatures rise and nutritious foliage diminishes. The Interior Department could implement it after a 60-day public comment period beginning Thursday.

Environmental organizations and their supporters in Congress were outraged by the proposed changes, which they said favor industry. Critics said they would doom hundreds of imperiled animals and plants and undermine the Endangered Species Act of 1973, one of the most popular — and heavily litigated — environmental laws ever enacted.

“If a single company can make a single dollar from the destruction or displacement of endangered species — it’s full speed ahead,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said. “This is part of the endless special favors the White House and the Interior Department are willing to do for their industry friends.”

The Endangered Species Act, which protects more than 1,250 species, is based on three key elements: listing species as threatened or endangered; designating habitat essential for the species’ survival; and recovering populations so they can be removed from the list. Environmentalists point to species including grizzly bears and red-legged frogs, which have rebounded since the law’s passage.

Bernhardt’s proposals modify key terms originally intended to strike balanced solutions for government agencies, landowners and environmentalists to protect and restore endangered species and the natural resources they need to complete their life cycles.

The changes are needed, Bernhardt said, because “the public’s experience has evolved over the years.”

Communities are better now at addressing their own ecological issues, he said. The framework of the law, he said, has not evolved with them.

As it stands, the term “endangered” applies to an animal or plant in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future. A “threatened” species is one deemed likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. Critical habitat is a specific geographic area, whether occupied by the species or not, determined to be essential for the conservation and management of the listed plant or animal.

“The proposed changes are a guaranteed map to extinction,” said Tara Zuardo, senior wildlife attorney for the Animal Welfare Institute. “Allowing a few individuals of species to exist on a small piece of land or a zoo is not what Congress intended in passing the [Endangered Species Act], nor is it what the American public wants.”

Rebecca Riley, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed.

“The very agencies that are charged with saving species are proposing to weaken the bedrock protections of the Endangered Species Act,” she said. “This law has saved 99% of listed species from extinction.”

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A concern among environmentalists is that the Interior’s heightened interest in local control could reduce the influence of scientists in decision-making.

Developers, business interests and state governments, however, have long blamed the Endangered Species Act for land-use controls that trample property rights and thwart economic activity with little concern for their potential losses.

Critical habitat protections for the threatened California gnatcatcher, for example, have barred development across nearly 100,000 acres of land in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino counties since 1993.

In 2014, the Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew its proposal to list the wolverine as a threatened species under pressure from states where most of the animals are found: Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Those states questioned the viability of climate change predictions and warned that federal protections would hurt recreation and development in alpine terrain managed by local authorities.

“These proposals are great news,” said Jonathan Wood, an attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, which has represented groups including the California Building Industry Assn. and Property Owners Assn. of Riverside County in land-use disputes touched off by the gnatcatcher’s status as a threatened species.

“By relaxing restrictions,” he said, “landowners will have more reason to cooperate in the recovery of threatened species, and environmentalists will have less incentive to litigate these issues.”

Rob Gordon, a spokesman for the free market think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the Endangered Species Act “has been used to stymie economic growth and trample on private property rights. These proposals are a good sign the Trump administration recognizes the problems.”

Greg Sheehan, principal deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, would not argue with any of that.

“By creating a clearer regulatory distinction between threatened and endangered species,” he said, “we are also encouraging partners to invest in conservation that has the potential to improve a species’ status, helping us work towards our ultimate goal: recovery.”

Helping species recover won’t be made easier with fewer protections, said Riley, the Natural Resources Defense Council attorney.

“The conflicts the Trump administration is trying to avoid with these changes,” she said, “will instead lead to more controversy, more costly legal battles and the loss of valuable time running out fast to save species on the brink.”

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