Plan to tweak Endangered Species Act draws fire

A proposed change to the Endangered Species Act might have precluded the listing of bald eagles in the lower 48 states had it been in effect at the time of the birds' listing. PHOTO COURTESY USFWS.

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.



5 thoughts on “Plan to tweak Endangered Species Act draws fire

  1. Perhaps they should put the threshold of being P.O.T.U.S. higher than just hopey-changie rhetoric and how much money one can amass, to achieve the office? Instead, base it on what the person does for the country, not the few donors. I know, off base here, but this nonsense is taking the absurd factor too far. If anything, this does point up the fact that the common sense in the political arena, is itself, an endangered item!

  2. This is a necessary and timely change to the Endangered Species Act, bringing logic and common sense to an issue long used in arguments made only to obstruct critical projects and necessary infrastructure.

    When a law is applied in such a way as to stretch the credibility of its purpose, it creates a litigious climate of mistrust and poor communication. The premise that a species is endangered when it has ceased to thrive in one area but thrives in another is not credible. Conditions of the natural environment are in a state of flux, and always will be.

    I stand by my consistent opinion that unbiased scientific analysis must be the primary basis of actions taken by managing authorities. Credible studies consider the entire range of a species to derive conclusions. Habitat improves in one area and declines in another through multiple causes.

    The one constant in all of this is rhetoric constantly attempting to create action based on biased pseudo-scientific data and appeals to emotional context. It takes training and hard work, not sound bites. Thankfully this political climate seems to be changing, as do natural climate conditions.

    Let’s cheer everybody up!

    Needed to improve my road.
    Project halted – Houston Toad.

    Wanted to enlarge my house.
    Couldn’t – Preble’s Jumping Mouse.

    I lay around now, fat and lazy,
    work has stopped – a Lakeside Daisy.

    No matter where it is I’m at
    it’s now endangered habitat.

    Seems the presence of my feces
    Makes ME the endangered species.

    1. Love your verse, Mark, but respectfully disagree with the gist of your comment. Endangered species recovery isn’t about common sense – it’s about science.

      A change like this shouldn’t be by fiat, but only after a full, open discussion about what it means to recover a species, and it shouldn’t be a political discussion, but a scientific one.

      The ESA was written based on the best available science at the time, and that has changed, especially the genetic component. It would be well-worth revisiting the ESA based on the latest science to see if changes to the definitions of endangered and recovered are justified.

      A panel of conservation biologists would be best qualified to make that call. After they make a recommendation, Congress could propose an amendment to the ESA, take input from constituents, and then vote.

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