Sweeping proposals released by the Trump administration Thursday to change the way the government implements the Endangered Species Act provoked fairly predictable reactions – environmental groups blasted them, and industry groups welcomed them.

The proposals "would eliminate the longstanding regulatory prohibition on considering economic impacts when listing species, remove conservation protections for threatened species, narrow interagency consultation requirements and allow federal agencies to blind themselves to the broad consequences of their actions,” Defenders of Wildlife CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark said in a news release, one of many from environmental groups opposed to the proposals.

“We are pleased to see the administration taking such a serious and measured approach to modernizing the regulatory side of the Endangered Species Act,” Public Lands Council CEO Ethan Lane said in a statement. “While we are still reviewing the details of these proposed rules, they are focused on some of the most impactful areas of current ESA implementation and could consequently provide tremendous relief to ranchers once finalized.”

And Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said that "Farm Bureau is pleased to see that the Trump administration is prioritizing regulatory improvements to the (ESA). We look forward to reviewing the proposals in greater detail with our members and providing constructive comments to the docket. We are hopeful that the proposed rules will provide clarity and certainty, encourage voluntary conservation work, increase local involvement and chart a path for real recovery and delisting of species."

Fish and Wildlife Service Principal Deputy Director Greg Sheehan said in a release that the "improvements" were being proposed "to produce the best conservation results for the species while reducing the regulatory burden on the American people." The release was sent out by FWS and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the two agencies responsible for implementing the ESA.

FWS and NMFS tried to play down the impacts of the proposals. For example, they have proposed eliminating the ESA’s longstanding prohibition against taking economic impacts into account when deciding whether to list species as threatened or endangered.

Nevertheless, they said in the proposal, one of three released Thursday for publication in the Federal Register, “the services will continue to make determinations based solely on biological considerations.”

“The services are not suggesting that all listing determinations will include a presentation of economic or other impacts,” they said. “Rather, there may be circumstances where such impacts are referenced while ensuring that biological considerations remain the sole basis for listing determinations.”

There were a number of other proposed changes that are certain to elicit strongly worded input from all sides of the debate.

  • When designating critical habitat, which can trigger the ESA’s interagency consultation requirement, FWS and NMFS would be required to look first at areas occupied by the species, then to unoccupied habitat. In addition, the services “will only consider unoccupied areas to be essential (to the conservation of the species) where a critical habitat designation limited to geographical areas occupied would be inadequate to ensure the conservation of the species or would result in less efficient conservation for the species.”
  • The services have expanded the circumstances where they would not have to designate critical habitat. “A designation could create a regulatory burden without providing any conservation value to the species concerned,” they said in their proposal, citing as examples species “experiencing threats stemming from melting glaciers, sea level rise, or reduced snowpack but no other habitat-based threats” – such as the polar bear. Neither a critical habitat designation nor an interagency consultation triggered by it could “prevent glaciers from melting, sea levels from rising, or increase the snowpack,” they said.
  • Interagency consultations, widely considered the heart of the ESA’s protections, would not be necessary when the effects of the proposed federal agency action “are manifested through global processes,” such as climate change.
  • Species listed as threatened, the level below endangered, would no longer automatically receive the same protections from the FWS. Instead, FWS would have to issue a special rule to protect those species. FWS said in a press release that “the proposed changes would impact only future listings or downlistings and would not apply to those species already listed as threatened.”

After being published in the Federal Register, the services will take comments for 60 days, but it’s likely many groups will ask for more time.

The proposal comes as lawmakers in both the House and Senate are floating legislative proposals to amend the ESA. With time limited on the congressional schedule, however, the chances of getting ESA reform passed this year are slim.

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