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story.lead_photo.caption FILE - In this Feb. 1, 2016 file photo, a bald eagle takes flight at the Museum of the Shenandaoh Valley in Winchester, Va. While once-endangered bald eagles are booming again in the Chesapeake Bay, the overall trajectory of endangered species and the federal act that protects them isn't so clearcut. (Scott Mason/The Winchester Star via AP, File)

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump's administration moved on Monday to weaken how it applies the 45-year-old Endangered Species Act, ordering changes that critics said will speed the loss of animals and plants at a time of record global extinctions.

The action, which expands the administration's rewrite of U.S. environmental laws, is the latest that targets protections, including for water, air and public lands. Two states -- California and Massachusetts, frequent foes of Trump's environmental rollbacks -- promised lawsuits to try to block the changes in the law. So did some conservation groups.

The new rules would make it easier to remove a species from the endangered list and weaken protections for threatened species, the classification one step below endangered. And, for the first time, regulators would be allowed to conduct economic assessments -- for instance, estimating lost revenue from a prohibition on logging in a critical habitat -- when deciding whether a species warrants protection.

Critically, the changes would also make it more difficult for regulators to factor in the effects of climate change on wildlife when making those decisions because those threats tend to be decades away, not immediate. The changes also allow the administration to reduce the amount of habitat set aside for wildlife.

The new rules are expected to go into effect next month.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and other administration officials contend the changes improve efficiency of oversight while continuing to protect rare species.

"The best way to uphold the Endangered Species Act is to do everything we can to ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal -- recovery of our rarest species," he said in a statement. "An effectively administered Act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation."

Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, wrote in an op-ed last summer that the act places an "unnecessary regulatory burden" on companies.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the revisions "fit squarely within the president's mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species' protection and recovery goals."

The law's critics have said it is overly burdensome because species are rarely removed from the list. Since the law was passed, more than 1,650 have been listed as threatened or endangered, while just 47 have been delisted because their populations rebounded.

The Endangered Species Act is credited with helping save the bald eagle, California condor and scores of other animals and plants from extinction since President Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1973. The act currently protects more than 1,600 species in the United States and its territories.

While the nearly half-century-old act has been overwhelmingly successful in saving animals and plants that are listed as endangered, battles over some of the listings have been yearslong and legendary. They have pitted northern spotted owls, snail darters and other creatures and their protectors against industries, local opponents and others in court and political fights. Republican lawmakers have pushed for years to change the law.

John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who leads the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Monday's changes in enforcement were "a good start" but he would continue working to change the act.

Monday's changes "take a wrecking ball to one of our oldest and most effective environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act," Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, said in a statement. "As we have seen time and time again, no environmental protection -- no matter how effective or popular -- is safe from this administration."

Udall, the top Democrat on the Senate committee that oversees the Interior Department's budget, said Democrats were considering invoking the Congressional Review Act, a 1996 law that gives Congress broad authority to invalidate rules established by federal agencies, to block the changes.

One of Monday's changes includes allowing the federal government to raise in the decision-making process the possible economic cost of listing a species. That's even though Congress has stipulated that economic costs not be a factor in deciding whether to protect an animal.

Gary Frazer, an assistant director at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told reporters that the government would adhere to that stipulation by disclosing the costs to the public without it being a factor for the officials as they consider the protections.

Price tag or no, Frazer said, federal officials would keep selecting and rejecting creatures from the endangered species list as Congress required, "solely on the basis of the best available scientific information and without consideration for the economic impacts."

"Nothing in here in my view is a radical change for how we have been consulting and listing species for the last decade or so," Frazer added.

But Brett Hartl, a government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity conservation group, contended any such price tag would be inflated, and "an invitation for political interference" in the decision whether to save a species.

"You have to be really naive and cynical and disingenuous to pretend" otherwise, Hartl said. "That's the reason that Congress way back ... prohibited the [Fish and Wildlife] Service from doing that," he said. "It's a science question: Is a species going extinct, yes or no?"

A United Nations report warned in May that more than 1 million plants and animals globally face extinction, some within decades, owing to human influence, climate change and other threats. The report called the rate of species loss a record.

In Washington state, Ray Entz, wildlife director for the Kalispel tribe, spoke of losing the struggle to save the last wild mountain caribou in the lower 48 states, despite the creature's three decades on the Endangered Species List. With logging and other human activities and predators driving down the numbers of the south Selkirk caribou, Canadian officials captured and penned the last surviving members of the species over the winter for their protection.

"There were some tears shed," Entz said, of the moment when tribal officials realized the animal had dwindled in the wild past the point of saving. "It was a tough pill to swallow."

Despite the disappearance of the protected caribou species from the contiguous United States, Entz said, "We don't want to see a weakening of the law."

"There's times where hope is something you don't even want to talk about," he said. But, "having the Endangered Species Act gives us the opportunity to participate in that recovery."

Information for this article was contributed by Ellen Knickmeyer of The Associated Press; and by Lisa Friedman of The New York Times.

A Section on 08/13/2019

Print Headline: New rules for species act raise ire

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