It’s a lot to keep track of, so National Geographic will be maintaining an abbreviated timeline of the Trump administration’s environmental actions and policy changes, as well as reactions to them. We will update this article periodically as news develops
The White House is currently reviewing a regulation that some environmental groups fear could nix protections granted to nearly 300 threatened species.
In a surprise rule change submitted on Monday, the U.S. Department of the Interior has proposed removing what's called the “blanket section 4(d) rule.” Since the 1970s, this U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) policy has stated that by default, threatened species receive the full protections of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The ESA affords wide-ranging protections to species on the brink of extinction, barring everything from outright poaching to coming too close to the species in the wild. These restrictions don't automatically apply to threatened species, but section 4(d) of the ESA says that departments can protect threatened species at their discretion.
Historically, different departments have used this discretion in different ways. By default, FWS's blanket section 4(d) rule gives threatened species every ESA protection, which regulators then clarify and whittle down. When the National Marine Fisheries Service lists a threatened species, however, it adds protections bit by bit.
The proposed removal of the blanket section 4(d) rule concerns environmental groups because it's possible that the move would jeopardize protections for hundreds of threatened species, which aren't yet facing the threat of extinction but could in the future.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group, 294 species listed as threatened by the FWS are afforded protections only because of the blanket rule. The affected species include the northern spotted owl, the southern sea otter, the spotted seal, as well as eight species of coral and numerous plants.
“How are they going to deal with the species that are already listed as threatened?” asks Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “I think that's pretty critical, because there's no way they can publish 300 individual rules ... This certainly looks like a regulatory rollback.”That said, the rule change's impact remains unclear. The proposed regulation hasn't been released, and once it is, it will be subject to a period of public comment. The Interior Department has not yet responded to National Geographic's emailed questions about the proposed rule change.
“The Center for Biological Diversity thinks it's the worst-case scenario—it's hard for me to assume that,” says Defenders of Wildlife vice president Bob Dreher, an FWS associate director during the Obama administration. “We are of course concerned, and we're going to be watching it very, very carefully.”
In gearing up for the rule change, the Trump administration appears to be responding to two legal petitions filed in 2016 by the Pacific Legal Foundation—a conservative public-interest law firm—on behalf of the Washington Cattlemen's Association and the National Federation of Independent BusinessesThe groups argue that by giving threatened species all ESA protections as a default, the blanket rule functionally eliminates the distinction between endangered and threatened species. They say the arrangement illegally flouts Congress and penalizes private landowners.
Jonathan Wood, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, maintains that rescinding the blanket rule won't hurt conservation. He argues that if threatened species have fewer protections than endangered species, then private landowners have an incentive to help endangered species recover to threatened status—since the upgrade in status removes onerous regulations. (Read more about the debate over the Endangered Species Act.)
“Recovery for endangered species is abysmally low ... By varying the protections, you better align the incentives of the property owners with the incentives of the endangered species,” he says. “Ideally, we boost that recovery rate.”
Environmental groups and Wood disagree vehemently on the ESA's efficacy. But they agree on one major point: the text of the regulation may take months to be released, and until then, it's unclear how threatened species will be treated.
“Without seeing the proposed rule and the reasons it gives, it's hard to say too much,” says Wood.
That said, Dreher offers a word of caution to the Department of the Interior: “If they take an approach which leaves threatened species arbitrarily unprotected, you can be sure that we and other organizations will sue.”