July 13, 2022

Court restores Endangered Species Act provisions repealed under Trump

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The lesser prairie chicken.

Biodiversity advocates say a court decision that reverses policies instituted under former President Donald Trump that weakened the Endangered Species Act is a bright spot amid recent legal decisions and will help thousands of plants and animals.

Last week a federal court vacated the policies which, Joe Bushyhead, WildEarth Guardians’ Endangered Species Policy Advocate, said means the wildlife agencies will use the regulations that were in place before Trump repealed them to guide decisions.

This, he said, could have impacts on decisions like designating critical habitat for the lesser prairie chicken and for federal oil and gas leasing that could impact the bird.

The court ruling will also help species that he described as “in the queue” for threatened species designation. He gave the example of the Peñasco least chipmunk and the Sacramento Mountain checkerspot butterfly.

Bushyhead said President Joe Biden’s administration wanted to bring the policies back to the various federal agencies to go through a new rulemaking process. However, that would have kept the rules in place while the rulemaking occurred.

The decision, he said, will also save agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service time because they can focus on protecting species rather than rulemaking amid what has been described as a biodiversity crisis.

A coalition of advocacy groups sued the federal government in 2019, leading to last Tuesday’s ruling.

They say that the regulatory changes to the ESA made under Trump would have made it easier to remove animals and plants from the endangered species list and would weaken protections for species that have recently become listed as threatened.

Additionally, it would have required economic impacts to be considered when determining critical habitat designations.

Kristen Boyles, attorney at Earthjustice, said there is a potential that the court ruling could be appealed or challenged by groups who supported the Trump administration’s repeal. 

She said the regulations that will now be followed when making endangered species decisions have been in place for several administrations before Trump’s administration repealed them.

Boyles described the changes made under Trump as “sweeping changes to the rules that had been in place for 40 plus years.”

She said they impacted how species were listed and the protections the species received once listed. It also impacted how federal agencies consulted with each other when making decisions that could impact an endangered species.

Boyles, who lives in Washington where the impacts of dams on salmon has been a controversial point, gave the example of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanting to do a project and needing to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine if that project will harm an endangered or threatened species or its habitat.

“It’s the right thing to get rid of these regulations and go back to the ones that were in place beforehand that were time-tested by the agencies,” she said.

She said EarthJustice hopes Biden’s administration will now focus on the survival and recovery of species.