The Trump administration is proposing a major rule that could potentially weaken Endangered Species Act protections.
The Department of Interior wants to remove blanket protections for all species listed as “threatened.” Those are fish and wildlife that are slightly less vulnerable than those classified as endangered, but still at risk. This includes species like the spotted owl or the polar bear.
Under Section 4(d) of Endangered Species Act rules, threatened species receive the same level of protection as those classified as endangered until the federal government creates a tailored species protection plan for a listed animal. The agency has the jurisdiction and capability to create such tailored protections, but the process is time consuming. Most threatened species simply receive the blanket 4(d) protections.
Kieran Suckling with the Center for Biological Diversity said removing that default level of protection would be disastrous. “It means that threatened species are no longer automatically protected,” Suckling said. “It’s a huge impact which takes away one of the most fundamental protective measures of the Endangered Species Act.”
Proponents for the rule change say the way the Endangered Species Act is implemented needs updating. They want more flexibility in the management of threatened species. In 2016 the Washington Cattlemen's Association filed a legal petition asking for the removal of the 4(d) blanket rule.
And there could be valid reasons for doing away with the blanket protections according Robin Craig. Craig is an endowed faculty chair who teaches environmental law and policy at the University of Utah.
“It could allow for some more flexible habitat protections. It could allow for a little more flexibility for how people and protected species interact,” said Craig.
But to get there, the Fish and Wildlife Service would need to make a conservation plan for hundreds of threatened species. And if the budget-strapped agency doesn’t have the time for that, there would no longer be backup protections should this rule go through. “The default would be that most threatened species would not be protected from killing, harming, or harassing,” Craig said.
The official text of the proposed rule has not yet been released by the White House. If it moves forward, it will need to go through a formal rule-making and public comment period process.