Conservation groups, scientists say changes would weaken key environmental law
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — A move by the Obama administration to water down the Endangered Species Act is eliciting criticism from conservation groups and scientists, who say the change could limit protection for imperiled plants and wildlife.
At issue is a key phrase in the act that determines when plants and animals qualify for protection.Currently, endangered species are defined as being “in danger of extinction in all or a significant of portion of its range.”
According to conservation groups, the phrase “significant portion of range” is important because it means that a species need not be at risk of extinction everywhere it lives to receive protection.
The proposed Obama policy reinterprets this phrase by defining “significant” to mean that loss of the species from that portion of range would threaten the survival of the species. That would create a much higher threshold for imperiled wildlife to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
It also limits consideration of whether species are endangered in portions of their range to only where they currently exist and not their historic range — effectively pretending species have not already experienced massive losses from which they need to recover.
For example, lynx in Colorado might not have the protection of the Endangered Species Act under the new interpretation because there are healthy lynx populations in Alaska and Canada.
“If this policy had been in place when the Endangered Species Act was passed, the bald eagle would never have been protected in any of the lower 48 states, because there were still a lot of eagles up in Alaska,” said Noah Greenwald, director of the endangered species program with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the 89 conservation groups signing on to a letter of concern over the proposed change.
Separately, 97 conservation scientists and biologists also wrote a letter claiming that the change would affect the core intent of the Endangered Species Act.
“This policy is like ignoring an injured patient in the emergency room and jumping into action only when he’s at death’s door,” Greenwald said.
“This wrong-headed proposal strikes at the very heart of the Endangered Species Act, which was enacted to conserve the ecosystems on which imperiled species depend,” said Patrick Paranteau, a law professor at the Vermont Law School. “Instead of conserving ecosystems for their biological and economic values, this policy would promote fragmentation and degradation, driving more and more species to the brink of extinction. This is bad science, bad law and bad policy.”
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee, also criticized the policy in a Jan. 26 letter to the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, saying the policy sets the bar for listing declining species “at much too high a threshold” and that it is inconsistent with Congress’ original intent for the Endangered Species Act.
Separately the Society for Conservation Biology, the primary scientific body concerned with loss of species, submitted extensive comments today criticizing the policy.