On Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied endangered species protections to the blackfin sucker, the Mohave shoulderband snail, the white-tailed prairie dog, and the Woodville Karst cave crayfish. The FWS determined that populations of these animals are “stable,” “healthy,” and “protected.” Conservationists vehemently disagree, and were quick to condemn the decision as more evidence that endangered species protections are being eroded under the Trump Administration.
Additions to the ESA range widely from year to year, but typically follow a pattern of more listings during Democratic administrations. When former President Obama came into office, he ushered in eight years of relatively high species additions, ranging from 19 to 89 after two W. Bush terms that mostly saw single digit increases. Now, with President Trump in office for nearly a year, the number of newly-listed species barely rose above single digits for the first time since 2009. The rate of species listings could still be on the way down, as the GOP-controlled Congress considers ways to make it harder to add species to the Act.
The Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a 2014 petition seeking emergency protection for the Mohave shoulderband snail due to the proximity of an open-pit gold mine to some of its last remaining habitat, responded to Tuesday’s decision with outright incredulity.
“The failure to protect this clearly endangered snail is a completely bogus decision that is typical of the Trump administration’s war on science and endangered species,” Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center, said in a statement. “Condemning the Mohave shoulderband snail and dozens of other species to extinction is a tragedy of epic proportions. The snail and these other species could be saved with just a little bit of care on our part.”
Representatives of the Fish and Wildlife Service disputed the backlash.
Joanna Gilkeson, a public affairs specialist with the FWS, told Earther that the Service evaluated potential impacts of all identified threats to the snail—which also include off-road vehicles, fires, and changing vegetation—at three locations near Mohave, CA, its “presumed historic range.”
She said the Service concluded none of the threats rose to the level of the snail requiring ESA protection, and that the mine operators had developed a conservation plan for the snail in order to ensure the long-term persistence of the species.
Tyler Abbott, Wyoming Field Supervisor with the FWS, explained to Earther why the Service reached a similar conclusion regarding the white-tailed prairie dog, saying that based on the analysis of the best-available data, “the Service predicts that all of the existing white-tailed prairie dog populations are likely to persist in the future.”
Abbott did say that it’s difficult to predict the species’ future due to uncertainty “about the future effects of climate change and how a changing climate might affect the proliferation of sylvatic plague.”
An official with the Trump administration mentioning climate change—that’s something at least.
Drought and sylvatic plague, a nonnative disease, are the two main stressors affecting the health of the prairie dogs.
Abbott said that while there were very few species added to the ESA this year, the agency plans “to make dozens of ESA findings in the coming weeks and months.”
Earliest this year, the Trump administration denied protections to 29 other species, including the Pacific walrus, which many scientists consider to be endangered by climate change.
Environmental organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity often resort to litigation to speed up the process of getting species protected under the ESA. The CBD alone has hundreds of petitions still awaiting action, and Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at CBD recently told Courthouse News that the FWS “missed making listing decisions for 61 species and critical habitat determinations for 20 other species this year.”
Greenwald said that budget constraints within the FWS contribute to the backlog, and that the Fish and Wildlife’s already-insufficient listing budget of $20 million was cut to $17 million in the 2017 budget.
Nora Apter, a legislative advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Earther that “funding for ESA implementation has been starved for years, with hundreds of imperiled species awaiting protections—and it’s only getting worse.”
“The ESA does not need to be ‘modernized’ or ‘reformed’—it needs to be fully funded so that it can continue protecting our nation’s remaining plants, fish and wildlife for future generations,” she said.
The 43-year-old Endangered Species Act is one of the government’s most powerful conservation tools, and that’s a big part of what Republicans don’t like about it. It can obstruct economic development and be burdensome for landowners and others to accommodate.
Approximately 2,270 species are listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA. During the environmentally-friendly Obama administration, only 15 species of plants and animals were taken off the ESA list due to recovery. Only around 34 species have been delisted for recovery in the entire history of the Act. Ten species have been delisted because they went extinct.
The Republican-controlled Congress has held a number of hearings this year about reforming the Act, to do things like make it harder to add species to the list. They may call it “modernizing” the Act, but Patrick Parenteau, an environmental law specialist at the University of Vermont Law School, recently told Earther it looks a lot more like “weakening” it.
According to the CBD, since the beginning of the year there have been at least 63 legislative attacks “seeking to strip federal protections from specific species or undercutting the Endangered Species Act.”
“With Donald Trump in the White House, these types of attacks are more likely to become law, severely harming our nation’s endangered species,” the group notes.