WASHINGTON – The Trump administration issued a new proposal today that will severely limit the government’s ability to protect habitat that imperiled animals and plants will need to survive and recover.
The proposal, the latest in its attempt to weaken the Endangered Species Act, focuses on a crucial aspect of the law that protects “critical habitat” for threatened and endangered species. The new proposal limits protections to habitat that could currently support the species — but not areas that could be restored or safeguarded to provide additional habitat for future recovery. That would preclude protecting habitat that had been historically used by a species as well as habitat that could be important as species move in response to threats such as climate change.
“The Trump administration won’t be satisfied until it removes all protections for the natural world, including clean air and water, land, and now even habitat for our most vulnerable wildlife,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “If endangered species are going to recover, we have to protect and restore places they used to live.”
The definition proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today limits habitat to the “areas with existing attributes that have the capacity to support individuals of the species,” clearly limiting it to only those places that could support a species now. Most endangered species, however, have lost extensive areas of their historic range to habitat loss and fragmentation and thus need habitat restoration to recover.
The definition stems from a 2018 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that said the Service needed to define the term habitat in relation to the highly endangered dusky gopher frog. The frog survives in one ephemeral pond in Mississippi. Recognizing that to secure the frog would require recovering it in additional areas, the Service designated an area in Louisiana that had the ephemeral ponds the frog requires. However, this area would need forest restoration to provide high-quality habitat.
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Weyerhaeuser Timber Company, the landowner, and Pacific Legal Foundation, a private-property advocacy group, challenged the designation, resulting in today’s definition and the frog losing habitat protection in Louisiana.
“You simply can’t save species without protecting the places where they live and raise families,” said Greenwald. “It’s appalling to see the Trump administration slashing away at habitat protections. This will have real life-and-death consequences for some of our nation’s most vulnerable species.”
The definition will also preclude protecting places plants and animals will need as their habitat moves in response to climate change. The eastern black rail, for example, is proposed for threatened status and lives in coastal wetlands that are likely to be flooded by climate change-driven sea-level rise. This rule will preclude designating and protecting inland areas the rail will need in the future.
The rule may also result in the likely loss of habitat protections for the northern spotted owl. Right now more than 9 million acres of critical habitat are protected for the owl, including many areas that don’t currently support the old-growth forests the species needs to survive, but will in the future. Under a settlement with the timber industry, the Trump administration is expected to issue a revised designation soon. If the new definition is followed in the rule, the owl is likely to lose many of those protected acres.