Reflecting on The Endangered Species Act
An Animal Rights Article from

FROM Elan Abrell, J.D., Ph.D, Animals and Society Institute (ASI)
October 2019

The Trump Administration's rollback of the Endangered Species Act is about accelerating climate change.

In mid-August of this year, the Trump administration issued a set of roll-backs to weaken the Endangered Species Act (ESA), only 3 months after the release of a report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services that warned 1 million species are currently at risk of extinction, largely as a result of human activities.

Specifically, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued new rules for enforcement that will allow the federal government to consider economic factors in determining whether a species could be categorized as “endangered” or “threatened.” Additionally, species categorized as “threatened” (one step below endangered) will no longer automatically be afforded the same protections as those in the endangered category.

Instead, such protections will be determined on a case-by-case basis, if at all. Further, whereas “threatened” is defined as “any species which is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future,” the new rules allow the agencies significant discretion in determining what is “foreseeable,” which many critics of the changes reasonably fear would enable regulators to disregard the long-term impacts of climate change in their determinations.

Aside from further aggravating the mass extinction threat outlined in the UN report, these changes enable the Trump administration to advance what, based on its other environmental policies, is difficult to see as anything other than an explicit agenda of climate change acceleration.

First, it enables federal agencies to disregard the impacts of the mining, petroleum, and ranching industries (among others) on threatened and endangered species (including the effects on these species of climate change, for which these industries are largely responsible).

Second, it creates opportunities for the expansion of these industries into spaces that would have otherwise been protected – through projects such as oil and gas drilling or grazing cattle on public lands – contributing even further to green house gas emissions as a result of these activities.

In a potentially more hopeful development, there are currently two lawsuits challenging these changes. The first was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of a coalition of environmental and animal protection groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club, and WildEarth Guardians. The second lawsuit was brought by a coalition of attorneys general from 17 states, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington, as well as attorneys general from two cities, Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Addressing the lawsuit, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) issued the following statement:

“As we face a climate emergency and global extinction crisis threatening more than a million species, the Trump Administration is gutting Endangered Species Act protections to pave the way for oil and gas developments. We are suing to defend federal law and protect our imperiled wildlife and environment.”

Since the roll-back announcement, ASI has joined the Endangered Species Working Group to collaborate with other like-minded organizations to restore the Endangered Species Act. Please continue to read our newsletters and check our social media platforms for updates on this work.

Elan Abrell, J.D., Ph.D, is a Board Member with Animals and Society Institute (ASI). He received his J.D. from Berkeley Law School at the University of California, and his M.Phil. and Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His dissertation, Saving Animals: Everyday Practices of Care and Rescue in the US Animal Sanctuary Movement (funded by a grant form the National Science Foundation), examines how sanctuary caregivers respond to a range of ethical dilemmas and material constraints while attempting to meet the various and sometimes conflicting needs of rescued animals.

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