Federal agencies roll back Trump limits on habitat protection

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TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — The Biden administration on Thursday withdrew a rule passed under former President Donald Trump that limited the lands and waters that could be designated as places where endangered animals and plants could benefit from the federal protection.

A definition of “habitat” released in December 2020, shortly before Trump left, restricted areas the government could identify as critical for particular wildlife. Conservationists said the move would put more species on the path to extinction, while supporters said it would secure private property rights.

By rescinding the rule, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service said it could hamper their mission to make science-based decisions about critical habitat.

“The growing extinction crisis highlights the importance of the Endangered Species Act and efforts to conserve species before declines become irreversible,” said Shannon Estenoz, Assistant Secretary of the Interior. for fish, wildlife and parks.

The rule was one of several steps the Trump administration has taken to reduce or change endangered species policies, including lifting blanket protections for animals newly listed as endangered and establishing cost estimates to save species. . Biden ordered a review of his predecessor’s environmental regulations shortly after taking office.

Under the 1973 law, federal agencies cannot fund, authorize, or take actions that would destroy or seriously damage critical habitats. It does not restrict activities on private land unless government approval or financial support is involved.

The Trump rule’s definition of habitat was “unclear, confusing, and inconsistent with the conservation objectives” of the law, the Fish and Wildlife Service and Marine Fisheries Service said in a joint statement.

This has prevented agencies from selecting areas that do not currently meet a species’ needs but may do so in the future as a result of restoration work or natural changes, the statement said. Global warming is expected to alter many landscapes and waters, attracting species to migrate from places that no longer suit them.

Habitat degradation and loss is the main reason animals and plants are at risk, agencies said, adding they should be able to designate critical spaces “in a way that protects habitats. listed species and promotes their recovery”.

Environmental groups have applauded the reversal of the rules, which comes as scientists warn of a plunge in global biodiversity. A 2019 United Nations report said around 1 million plants and animals are at risk of extinction, with species loss accelerating tens or hundreds of times faster than before.

“This is good news, but there is still work to be done to strengthen the (Endangered Species Act) so that endangered wildlife have every chance of surviving and thriving,” said Jamie Rappaport. Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife.

Jonathan Wood, vice president of law and policy at the Property and Environment Research Center, a self-proclaimed “free market environmentalism” group, said overturning the rule would discourage private conservation efforts.

“Critical habitat designations penalize landowners who conserve or restore habitat and therefore are of no use in areas that require substantial restoration to support the species,” Wood said. “The agency should provide incentives for landowners to protect and restore habitat, without alienating potential conservation partners.”

He represented forest owners in a lawsuit that resulted in a 2018 Supreme Court decision that led the Trump administration to craft its definition of habitat.

The case involved the highly endangered dark gopher frog, which survives in only a few ponds in Mississippi.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has designated 1,500 acres (607 hectares) in nearby Louisiana as critical habitat for the frog, even though no one lives there. Conservationists said more space was essential for the frog, but landowner logging company Weyerhaeuser Co. called it an unfair land grab.

The court ordered the government to decide what constitutes suitable habitat for the frog before designating areas as critical to saving them.

John Flesher, The Associated Press

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