Montana Audubon

Montana Audubon works at the local, state and national policy levels to protect our natural heritage.

Changes to Endangered Species Act

Late last month a series of rule changes to the Endangered Species Act were finalized by the Trump Administration with David Bernhardt at the helm. The final rules were signed August 12th this year, after a process that started in July of 2018. And while many conservation organizations quickly pivoted to challenge these changes, many are still trying to understand just what the impacts will look like on the ground. On the whole, and despite dozens of amendments, the Endangered Species Act is touted as perhaps the most important conservation law in history. Since the first series of listings in 1976, the number of listed endangered species has ballooned, from 178 to ~1650 today. But despite the Act’s inclusiveness, effectiveness, and board public support, changes made this summer to how regulations are carried out represent a step backwards for conserving our wildlife.

Here’s a look at what has changed.

  • Process and definitions
    • Section 4 of the Act lays out species listing and habitat delineation criteria. Changes made do 4 primary things; 1) Amend the protections extended to threatened species (removing the “blanket protection” that gave them essentially the same protection levels as endangered), 2) Amend the process of defining a species critical habitat, reducing the inclusion of currently unoccupied habitat, 3) Amend the definition of “foreseeable future” so only impacts to species that are “likely” can be considered during a listing decision (eliminating the inclusion of climate impacts) , and 4) Amend the listing process to now require economic impacts of listing to be estimated, a process that was expressly omitted in previous iterations.
  • Federal Agency Consultations
    • Section 7 of the law defines interagency consultation for development or permitted activities on federally managed lands that affect threatened and endangered species or their habitats. Rule changes this year put into place a consultation timeline, revise the definition of “destruction or adverse modification” for its application to effects on critical habitat, and revise how the “environmental baseline” for a species is described at the time of listing.

While the press release affirms that loosening regulations and clarifying definitions found within the Endangered Species Act are intended to increase the law’s transparency, most groups recognize the changes intent to spur natural resource development, like logging, mining, and gas drilling in critical habitats across the country. These changes are most likely to affect three species in Montana that our state provides critical habitat for, the Piping Plover, the Bull trout, and the Canada Lynx. Beyond these three, an additional 16 plant and animal species fall under the act in Montana, including the Grizzly Bear, Black-footed Ferret. Surely this is something to keep a watch on as these rule changes continue to face legal challenges.

 

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