Interior Department proposes ending protection for threatened species

The grizzly bear is listed as threatened in the lower 48 states, with the exception of the Yellowstone ecosystem’s subspecies, which is listed as recovered. (USDA Forest Service)

The U.S. Department of the Interior proposed a rule to the White House this week that would effectively rescind most protections for hundreds of species of wildlife listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Protections to be eliminated include the 40-year-old rule, 4(d) in the Act, which offers the same special protections for threatened species as those categorized as endangered.

“The Trump administration just issued a death sentence to nearly 300 threatened species,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which establishes and implements regulations, has broad authority under the Endangered Species Act to conserve threatened species. Section 4(d) of the ESA, which has been in effect since 1975, directs the Service to issue regulations deemed “necessary and advisable to provide for the conservation of threatened species.”

The 4(d) rule can be modified to allow the Service to work on maintenance, rodent control and weeding without violating the regulations that apply to endangered species.

About 70 species in California, another 20 in Hawaii, and scores more fish, birds, mammals and plants around the country are at risk of losing special regulatory protections. The grizzly bear is listed as threatened in the lower 48 states, with the exception of the Yellowstone ecosystem, where it is listed as recovered.

The wildlife under threat include southern sea otters, northern spotted owls, piping plovers, red knots, Yosemite toads, delta smelt, Santa Catalina Island foxes and gopher tortoises.

Greenwald called 4(d) “crucial” for the protection of “iconic wildlife” and said when the Service enacted the rule that protections would be relaxed only if they “determined that fewer protections were warranted.”

According to Greenwald, the rule change would benefit major polluters and companies that operate in wildlife habitats. For example, without these protections, logging companies could begin working in nesting habitats for the northern spotted owl, Greenwald said.

“Trump is erasing America’s natural heritage to make his friends richer and allow polluters to ravage our environment,” Greenwald said.

The Department of the Interior did not return a request for comment by press time, and no further information was available on the Department’s website.

Greenwald said the proposal “came out of the blue” rather than being posted online for public discussion. The Department has not responded to his requests for clarification.

“They’ve been tight-lipped,” he said

During his term in office, Trump-appointed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has faced scrutiny over his travel and spending habits, with some suggesting he mixes official agency trips with political fundraising events.

In 2016, a conservative advocacy group called the Pacific Legal Foundation petitioned the Service to rescind rule 4(d). Damien Schiff, who President Trump later nominated to be a federal judge, authored the petition.

“If these critical protections for threatened species are eliminated, Trump will go down in history as the extinction president,” said Greenwald.

“[The proposed rule] threatens to undo decades of progress towards improving the health of the environment for people and wildlife alike,” he added.

According to the Department’s website, the proposal is pending review.