In the USA, the Endangered Species Act 1973 was passed with bipartisan support under Richard Nixon. The Act expanded greatly upon its predecessors: the Endangered Species Preservation Act 1966, which permitted listing native U.S. animal species that needed protection as ‘endangered’ and granting limited protections; and the 1969 Amendment, which expanded protections by banning important and sale of certain species in danger of worldwide extinction.
As established in the comprehensive, completely rewritten 1973 Act Act, individuals and organisations may petition to have a species listed as “threatened” or “endangered” (terms defined in the Act) . The proposals undergo rigorous scientific evaluation and public review. If listed, collaboration is required on federal, state, local authority, and sometimes tribal levels to implement and maintain recovery plans, with populations then being monitored over time. The Act also makes plants and all invertebrates eligible for protection, and it implements The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (‘CITES’) in the United States, a global agreement between governments to adhere to rules to monitor, regulate, or ban international trade in species under threat.
The Act has been described as the most effective law for protecting species facing extinction, with 99% of listed species having reportedly survived adversity. The impact is perhaps best appreciated by looking at the recovery rate of America’s very emblem: the bald eagle. This majestic creature was called to symbolic duty, in part, on the basis of its long lifespan (an average of 28 years in the wild). But its population was decimated through hunting, pesticide use, and culling to protect fishing grounds. Before the Act, only 417 breeding pairs of bald eagles were estimated to live in the United States. But their numbers increased drastically after gaining protected status, and bald eagles were removed from the list in 2007 with 9,700 pairs accounted for in the United States.
However, the Trump Administration now seeks to unravel all of the hard work that has woven the fabric of this legal armour. The administration has issued final rules affecting crucial features of the act; resultant damages will reflect a focus on economic rather than environmental priorities. First, species recognised as “threatened” as opposed to “endangered” would no longer be afforded the same protections that have automatically applied to them in the past. Any protections will be granted on a case-by-case analysis instead. This change applies to newly listed species, of which more than 70 are currently waiting to be classified.
Further, the fundamental protections themselves would be narrowed in scope, making it more difficult to protect species against climate change. For example, the definition of “foreseeable future” at present creates a barrier from the effects of climate change, but this would be reduced to specific time periods and likely be clumsily quantified. Lastly, and perhaps most troubling, language prohibiting the consideration of the economic impact of listing a species would be removed. The administration argues that removing this barrier will lead to clearer, more fact-based decision-making and will ease regulatory burdens. In practice, this language has kept industries like oil out of the decision-making process, unable to show how much money they could earn if a critical habitat were drilled and developed instead of preserved, or how much revenue would be lost if a species tree-based habitat were protected instead of logged. This change means that corporate interests will trump science and animal welfare.
The proposed changes are being challenged by many states and non-profit organisations. However, much damage has already been done: As of early December, Trump has only approved 21 species for federal protection during his time in office. In the same amount of Time, President Obama had approved 71.