US wildlife agency seeks to carve out areas from protections

Published 6:50 am Saturday, September 5, 2020

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BILLINGS, Mont. — A Trump administration proposal released Friday would allow the government to deny habitat protections for endangered animals and plants in areas that would see greater economic benefits from being developed — a change critics said could open lands to more energy development and other activities.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials described the proposal as giving more deference to local governments when they want to build things like schools and hospitals.

But the proposal  indicates that exemptions from habitat protections would be considered for a much broader array of developments, including at the request of private companies that lease federal lands or have permits to use them. Government-issued leases and permits can allow energy development, grazing, recreation, logging and other commercial uses of public lands.

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It’s the latest move by the Trump administration in a years-long effort to repeal regulations across government that has broadly changed how the Endangered Species Act gets used. Other steps under Trump to scale back species rules included lifting blanket protections for animals newly listed as threatened, setting cost estimates for saving species and a July proposal to restrict what areas fit under the definition of “habitat”.

Wildlife advocates say the administration’s approach has elevated natural resource extraction and commercial development over the protection of sites that are home to dwindling populations of endangered species.

Animals that could be affected by the latest change include the struggling lesser prairie chicken, a grasslands bird found in five states in the south-central U.S., and the rare dunes sagebrush lizard that lives among the oil fields of western Texas and eastern New Mexico, wildlife advocates said.

Friday’s proposal and the habitat definition offered in July were triggered by a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving a highly endangered Southern frog — the dusky gopher frog.

In that case, a unanimous court faulted the government over how it designated “critical habitat” for the 3 ½-inch-long (8.9-centimetre-long) frogs that survive in just a few ponds in Mississippi.

The ruling came after a timber company, Weyerhaeuser, had sued when land it owned in Louisiana was designated as critical.

The new proposal would require federal officials to consider factors such as economic or employment losses when making habitat decisions. That includes decisions affecting federal land for which private companies have permits or leases, such as for drilling, grazing, logging or other development.

Those areas could be carved out from protections by the Secretary of Interior “so long as the exclusion of a particular area does not cause extinction of a species,” Fish and Wildlife officials wrote.

Agency Director Aurelia Skipwith said in a statement that the proposal would provide “greater transparency for the public, improve consistency and predictability for stakeholders affected by ESA (Endangered Species Act) determinations and stimulate more effective conservation.”

But the former director of the federal wildlife service during the Clinton administration, Jamie Rappaport Clark, said the change — if finalized — was sure to harm species on the edge of extinction.

“This new proposal puts a heavy thumb on the scale in favor of developers and industry,” said Clark, who now heads the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife