Conservation officials push back against changes to Endangered Species Act

But local conservationists have expressed a sense of dismay.

“There’s nothing wrong with the Endangered Species Act,” said Lou Perrotti, who since 1994 has headed a conservation effort on Nantucket to encourage a population of the American burying beetle. “It’s not broken. It doesn’t need to be fixed.”

As the director of conservation programs at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Perrotti is a champion of the beetle, a critically endangered species once found in 35 states across the country. Now, the only place on the East Coast with a natural population is Block Island in Rhode Island.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under pressure by the oil and gas industry to remove protections for the beetle under the Endangered Species Act, Perrotti said. Now there is a recommendation to reduce the protections by designating the beetle as threatened rather than endangered, a reclassification that would ease restrictions on the oil and gas industry, he said.

“This is a broader reach over all the species,” Perrotti said of the revisions announced Monday.

The revisions by the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service apply to two sections of the act. Section 4, in part, allows regulators to add and remove species from protections and designate critical habitat. Section 7 covers consultations with other federal agencies.

“The best way to uphold the act is to do everything we can to ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal — recovery of our rarest species,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said Monday.

The revisions fit squarely within the president’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public without sacrificing the country’s species protection and recovery goals, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said.

Among the tens of thousands of public comments on the proposed regulatory revisions were those from the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, headquartered in Dennis, and the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown.

“I assume they ignored anything we had to say,” Andrew Gottlieb, executive director for the association, said Tuesday.

In its Sept. 10, 2018, letter that was part of the public record, the association emphasized its opposition to changes that it believes will “pit economic interests against science” when decisions are made about protecting a species or its habitat.

“It will inevitably insert a bias towards special interests and private industry in determining the future survival of a species,” Gottlieb said in the letter.

The association opposed what it said is the weakening of a longstanding requirement that federal agencies coordinate with the Fish and Wildlife Service to make sure projects do not adversely impact endangered species. The change would essentially give federal agencies “carte blanche to proceed with projects without any regard for the destruction of habitat or killing of endangered species,” according to the letter.

“One example of a potential casualty of this proposed change is the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale,” Gottlieb wrote in the letter.

In theory, the revisions allow species classified as endangered to continue to receive the same protections, but the association is concerned that allowing lower standards for assessment and protection of habitats “could easily doom this most vulnerable of species.”

The association also opposed changes that prohibit consideration of future and likely threats to species in determining their protective status. That change is a way to block consideration of climate change impacts, the association said. The group also opposed changes that removed protections provided to species designated as threatened.

Both North Atlantic humpback and right whales populations are currently experiencing “unusual mortality events” that are of concern to scientists, diverse constituent groups, politicians and natural resource managers, said David Dow, of East Falmouth, who also contributed a public comment. Hopefully the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act can resolve the mortality challenge, Dow said.

On Monday, Attorney General Maura Healey and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said they would be taking the Trump administration to court to defend federal law and protect rare animals, plants and the environment.

In Section 4, the law directs determinations to add or remove a species as threatened or endangered based solely on the best available scientific and commercial information.

“These will remain the only criteria on which listing determinations will be based,” according to an Interior Department statement.

Revisions to the regulation also clarify that the standards for delisting and reclassification of a species consider the same five statutory factors as the original listing of a species.

Also in Section 4, the Interior Department says in some cases the designation of critical habitat is not prudent. Revisions identify a partial list of such circumstances.

The revised regulations also reinstate the requirement that, when designating a critical habitat, areas where threatened or endangered species are present at the time of listing be evaluated first before unoccupied areas are considered. The changes also impose a higher standard for unoccupied areas to be designated as critical habitat.

The Fish and Wildlife Service alone modified section 4(d) by rescinding a “blanket rule” that automatically gave threatened species the same protections as endangered species unless otherwise specified, according to Interior Department.

Under Section 7, revisions clarify the interagency consultation process and make it more efficient and consistent, according to the Interior Department.

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Tuesday, August 13, 2019

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Increases in transparency, effectiveness and administrative modernization of the Endangered Species Act are at the heart of revisions to the 45-year-old law announced Monday, two key members of the Trump administration have asserted.