Legal battle over the Endangered Species Act
Seven major environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, sued the Trump administration this week over new rules for enforcing the Endangered Species Act. The groups say the changes will gut the landmark law, which protects 1,663 imperiled animal and plant species. Under the new guidelines, species that are designated as “threatened” will no longer get the same protections as those deemed “endangered,” though species already on the “threatened” list will be exempt from the changes. Officials will be barred from protecting habitats of threatened species unless they can “reasonably determine” that environmental damage is “likely,” phrasing meant to prevent regulators from anticipating the effects of climate change. And, for the first time, officials will be allowed to calculate economic impacts of protecting a species, a move supported by some business groups.
Conservationists, however, fear the changes will clear the way for mining, drilling, and other development in precious areas, ignoring the lessons of the law’s success since its bipartisan passage in 1973. The act is credited with saving the bald eagle, which was removed from the threatened list in 2007, as well as the humpback whale, grizzly bear, peregrine falcon, and American alligator. Several states, including California and Massachusetts, have also promised to file suit to block the administration’s changes.
What the columnists said
“Polar bears, spotted owls, and other species” have nothing to fear, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. Essential parts of the Endangered Species Act are untouched, but the rest desperately needed fixes. The law had become a “weapon to strip property rights and block millions of acres of private development.” Rules were manipulated to get species listed that aren’t at risk and to “move the goalposts” when a population recovered. This overly celebrated law “has achieved far less than advertised,” and about half of the 55 species it helped recover “were mistakenly listed in the first place.”
Nonsense—the enormous success of this law is so clear that it’s been emulated throughout the world, said Carl Safina in The New York Times. An estimated 99 percent of listed species have avoided extinction, which is the only metric that matters. Take the California condor: There were 20 or so remaining in the 1980s, and now the “1,000th condor” under supervision recently hatched. “When we make the effort, saving species works.” This used to be a nonpartisan issue: It was President Nixon who signed the endangered-species protections in 1973, saying that “nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation.”
The world is experiencing “the highest rate of extinction since the loss of the dinosaurs,” said Ron Magill in the Miami Herald. Weeks before the Trump administration proposed these changes, the United Nations reported that up to 1 million species face extinction. Now is the worst possible time to begin considering the “cost” of conservation. Extinctions, even of something like “a tiny fish that feeds on mosquito larvae,” ripple across our ecosystem. When we lose such a species, “all the money in the world will not be able” to bring it back. ■