Fact check: Will changes to the implementation of the ESA cause species to go extinct?

Following the Trump Administration’s finalization of its modernized approach to implementing the Endangered Species Act, the usual suspects amped up pointed rhetoric blaming the President and his top aides for ushering in the ominous fate of countless endangered species across the globe. This criticism is challenged by agency officials and backed up by folks on the ground who support the regulatory changes and stand by this better approach to species management as essential to appropriately implementing protections for sensitive species.

The truth is the ESA, despite best intentions, does very poorly at its job. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s own data shows the ESA successfully recovered just three percent of listed species since its enactment in 1973. The remaining 2,000 species under protection sit in limbo on the growing list. In our view, the modernized approach to implementing the ESA seeks to change that.

One example is the changes focus on providing a path to recovery for listed species. The finalized rules examine an ESA loophole for the terms “environmental baseline” and “effects of action”, considerations that determine the past, present and future impacts of listing and delisting decisions. These terms were so broad that folks argued about their interpretation, deliberations that often find themselves in court. This litigation benefited no one. It delayed recovery efforts for species as they awaited court decisions and reallocated funds that could have been used for species recovery to litigation expenses. Today, because of the finalized rules to the implementation of the ESA, these ambiguous terms are more narrowly defined allowing for a more streamlined processed.

Another substantial change to the implementation focuses on the type of protections granted to species based on their status. The ESA changes prioritize protections for species in greater danger of extinction rather than providing blanket protections for all species under its purview. For example, endangered species are species in danger of extinction throughout all or a highly significant portion of its range while threatened species are species ‘to watch’, meaning there is potential for the species to become endangered in the future. Historically, the ESA regulations automatically granted the same protections to both categories, but this diverted resources from those that might need it more. Now, with the removal of the blanket rule granting equal protections to all species, the government can analyze species on a case-by-case basis to ensure resources are allocated appropriately. Sounds pretty logical, don’t you think?

This same common-sense approach was applied to habitat designations. The finalized ESA implementation clarifies the government should prioritize habitats that realistically could serve as a safe-haven for species. In essence, the modernized approach asks more than just if a habitat could be used to regrow a population, but it explores if a it is the correct habitat to target. Take Central Park – yes, it’s a green open space that could serve as a landscape for the gray wolf, but it is far from the best location to divert time and resources for said species’ recovery. Thus, the finalized rules seek to ensure logic is in place in designating critical habitat for species in need.

In our view, these changes are far from a death wish for endangered species. They rules are simply much-needed clarifications to allow the government to assess and implement recovery efforts for sensitive species. The modernized approach to ESA implementation benefits all; the rules allow for protections to be applied more quickly and for species to have a real path to recovery – a path that makes room for other species who more immediately need attention and resources.

Want to learn more about our efforts to modernize the ESA? Check out our issues page!