The war on wildlife is fast becoming a thing. This week, the U.S. government unleashed a flurry of activity that puts furry friends along with plants, fish, insects and a host of other species at risk.
House Republicans introduced a bill this week that would weaken the Endangered Species Act’s conservation priorities. They also passed a budget proposal that could open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
Those activities alone raise alarm bells for environmentalists. But the Trump administration also got in on the action, making it a four-alarm wildlife dumpster fire.
On Thursday, the Department of the Interior gave a big ol’ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ to 25 species that have been waiting to be reviewed under the Endangered Species Act, saying they didn’t warrant protection under the act. The mass rejection includes walruses threatened by shrinking sea ice, lizards losing habitat to sea level rise and birds that live on mountain peaks that are warming to the point where they have nowhere else to go.
Noah Greenwald, the director of the endangered species program at the Center for Biological Diversity, told Earther rejecting that many petitions at once was “unusual.” The center was involved with some of the original petitions and followup lawsuits related to the batch of rejected species.
The decision came down from the acting director of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), a position Trump has yet to fill. It was signed off on by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who oversees the service. Listings under the Trump administration have dropped precipitously compared his predecessor. Only six species have been accepted this year compared to an average of 48 per year under Obama.
The Endangered Species Act is one of the federal government’s tools to help species that humans have pushed to the edge try to claw back to some semblance of normalcy. When a species gets listed as threatened or endangered, the government puts together a plan to give them a hand, whether by restoring habitat or reintroducing them to territory they previously occupied.
The bald eagle is perhaps the act’s biggest success story. It was brought back from the brink thanks to protections from the plan. But the 25 species rejected on Thursday won’t be added to that list of successes anytime soon.
Among the group, the Pacific walrus was the highest profile due to its megafauna status and the fact the Obama administration said it should be listed due to the threats of climate change and melting sea ice.
While acknowledging the disappearance of ice, which is crucial habitat, FWS suggested that Pacific walruses would be able to adapt by spending more time on land.
Andrea Mederios, a FWS public affairs specialist, told Earther that scientists have seen changes in walrus behavior due to declining sea ice since 2011, including “greater use of coastal haulouts, changes in the timing of seasonal migrations, and the ability to travel long distances to access offshore foraging areas.”
It’s unclear, though, if walruses will be able to continue going with the flow as sea ice dwindles even further.
The Florida Keys mole skink, a tiny lizard that inhabits the islands off the coast of South Florida, also faces a climate change-driven threat in the form of rising seas. The lizard resides on sand berms within 31 inches of current sea level. Human-caused climate change was responsible for 94% of the flood days in South Florida from 2005-2014 according to a study published last year. Increasingly high tides will continue dooming the skink’s habitat to a watery fate.
In its decision not to list the skink, FWS said it considered sea level rise out to 2040 because anything beyond that was considered too uncertain.
“Trying to look beyond 30-40 years right now gets us into too much scientific uncertainty regarding sea-level rise,” Philip Kloer, a spokesperson for the FWS office in Atlanta, wrote to Earther in an email.
It’s true that there are a range of future sea level rise scenarios largely determined by how fast humans cut emissions. But most scientists argue that’s a case to take action not delay it, which makes the decision not the list skink even more curious.
“To cut off sea level rise estimates at 2040 is completely arbitrary,” Greenwald said. “I doubt any planner in the Keys is going to limit analysis to 2040. The writing is on the wall for Florida Keys.”
The black-backed woodpecker, a bird that makes its habitat in dead trees left over after wildfires, also got passed over for listing. Wildfires are becoming more common and intense in the West. On the surface that sounds like it would be a boon for the woodpecker, but that’s just not the case.
More intense fires can completely incinerate forests, destroying the dead trees the birds need to survive. Logging only further compounds the problem.
“The post-fire habitats that these woodpeckers utilize are threatened principally because it is very popular to cut down trees in forests after they have burned,” Morgan Tingley, an ecologist at the University of Connecticut who studies the woodpecker, told Earther. “Even if we stopped post-fire logging, the future is still uncertain for the black-backed woodpeckers. Climate change is causing fire regimes to change, meaning fires may happen more frequently, more severely, and in larger areas.”
Duke biologist Stuart Pimm told The Washington Post that the wide range and types of species that were rejected show “how pervasive climate change is in destroying biodiversity and, indeed, destroying natural environment.”
Despite the widespread havoc climate change is causing, the 25 rejected species will now be left to fend for themselves without endangered species protection. Those protections include habitat restoration, limits on hunting and federal aid to state wildlife agencies, all with the goal of getting populations back to healthy levels.
Republicans in the House are also trying to make it harder for wildlife to thrive in a world overrun by human development and climate change.
The House Natural Resources Committee passed a bill on Wednesday that would allow FWS “to decline to list the species as a result of those economic impacts.”
That’s a major break for an act that was passed in 1973 expressly to protect the natural world from rapacious development. The original text includes a statement that “various species of fish, wildlife, and plants in the United States have been rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.”
Though the committee bill is unlikely to make it through the House and Senate and alter the act, Greenwald said he’s watching to see if it ends up as a rider elsewhere.
On Thursday, the House adopted a budget proposal that could open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas extraction. The proposal is aimed to offset the $1.5 trillion tax cuts Republicans are proposing by finding money elsewhere in the government.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, which has been tasked with finding $5 billion to help cover some of revenue that would disappear if the tax cuts happen. The oil that sits under the refuge on the northern fringe of Alaska is one area he and other committee Republicans are eying as a way to make up for the proposed tax cuts according to E&E News.
The refuge is home to polar bears, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and other unique plants and animals (including the recently-rejected Pacific walrus).
Though only a fraction of plants and animals listed under the Endangered Species Act have been delisted, the act is still considered to be a major environmental success. An analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity found that 90% of species listed under the act are in recovery. That analysis doesn’t include all the ways that other plants animals that share space with endangered species benefit from the act.