Otter welcomes proposed changes to Endangered Species Act, but conservationists worry

Male greater sage grouse in mating display on rocky ground in Modoc County, California.
Male greater sage grouse in mating display on rocky ground in Modoc County, California. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Idaho governor’s conservation adviser welcomed proposed limits on the power of the Endangered Species Act, but one state conservation leader pointed to widespread public support for protecting animals that could blunt major changes to one of the country’s most-stringent and most-popular laws.

The Trump administration published its proposal Wednesday in the Federal Register, triggering a 60-day public comment period that ends Sept. 24.

“For decades, Idahoans have endured draconian regulations concerning the Endangered Species Act that have hindered economic prosperity and have done very little to recover protected species,” said Dustin T. Miller, administrator of the Governor’s Office of Species Conservation. He said the changes would mean “better pathways for conservation and recovery of protected species and more certainty for folks making a living off the land.”

According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, there are five factors that are assessed when considering either adding a species to the threatened or endangered list or delisting it. Is there a threat to their habitat or range? Is the species being over-utilized for some reason, such as recreation? Are diseases or predators harming the species? Are there adequate mechanisms in place to protect the species or its habitat? Are there other natural or man-made factors affecting the species?

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An endangered species is one in danger of going extinct across most of its range. A threatened species is one that is in danger of becoming endangered in the “foreseeable future” across most of its range. “Recovery” refers to the process through which a species is rehabilitated and no longer requires the protection of the ESA.

As recovery progresses and the five issues are addressed, species can be down-listed from endangered to threatened or taken off the list entirely. In Idaho, 10 species of animals and five species of plants listed as either threatened or endangered, ranging from slickspot peppergrass that grows only in Southern Idaho to the Selkirk Mountain population of woodland caribou.

At least, that’s how the law works now. Some of the proposed changes could make it easier to take a species off the list, such as the Yellowstone grizzly bear, where it can be difficult to determine when a population has recovered.

The changes could also make it harder to put a species on the list. A key example is the greater sage grouse. While advocates have pushed to give the sage grouse the act’s protection, it was blocked from being listed by Congress in 2015. Legal efforts continue, and 11 western states have agreed to a land management plan for the grouse’s sagebrush habitat. The sage grouse is highly dependent on sagebrush for its winter diet. Conservationists worry that a redefinition of the criteria for listing, particularly relating to critical habitat, could undermine legal efforts to protect the grouse.

Miller hopes the changes will lead to an increased role of the states in the implementation of recovery planning, something Idaho is interested in. “We are hopeful that this will bring about meaningful change.”

Brian Brooks, executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation is still studying the proposed “regulatory rewrite.” “So far, we have some real concerns about some of these proposals, such as lifting blanket protections for threatened species, which will create more work for agency biologists who are already strapped for resources.”

“It’s always in the crosshairs,” says Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League. “Anything that inserts wiggle room into the law from people who oppose the ESA is bad news.” The proposal from the Trump administration is not unexpected, says Johnson, but he’d be surprised if they were actually implemented. Unlike more arcane environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act is something everyone understands and relates to.

Even in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere, the the act enjoys a high level of public support. A recent study showed that roughly 80 percent of Americans support the law, with just 10 percent opposed to it. These percentages hold across a the breadth of interest groups and political leanings. Even among groups such as gun rights advocates, ranchers, and property rights advocates, support of the ESA was at 70 percent.

Supporters and critics both say that the law is not perfect in its implementation.

“The ESA of 1973 is a good law,” says Miller, “but it has been misinterpreted by the courts and misapplied.” He hopes the proposed changes will provide clarity and direction, opening the door for efficient recovery.

Said Brooks: “We do appreciate that this administration is interested in reviewing endangered species policies, particularly around removing species from the Endangered Species Act —an area of the law that could use some more clarity.”

Both Brooks and Johnson want to see the scientific foundation of species protection maintained. They worry that the changes could be used to get around some of the science.

For example, one proposed change suggested by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is to interpret the term “foreseeable future” in such a way as to “make it clear that it extends only as far as they can reasonably determine both the future threats and the species’ responses to those threats are probable.” Conservationists say that this change could be wielded to get around concerns of longer-term climate change.

“We urge decision-makers to prioritize bipartisan recommendations which bolster science-based decision-making, foster collaboration among conservation partners, and accelerate on-the-ground habitat restoration projects,” says Brooks, “and reject recommendations that erode the scientific integrity that is the bedrock of the ESA.”


Information about the threatened and endangered species in Idaho at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Search.

A guide to the rulemaking process and how public comments affect that process, visit this guide prepared by the Office of the Federal Register.

Go here to read the changes proposed to ESA (section 4) regulations for listing species and designating critical habitat in full or to make a public comment.

Go here to read the changes proposed to ESA (section 4d) regulations for prohibitions to threatened wildlife in full or to make a public comment.

Go here to read the changes proposed to ESA (section 7) regulations for interagency cooperation in full or to make a public comment.

See public comments publicly posted on the website https://www.regulations.gov after Sept. 24.

Kevin Davenport: 208-377-6411, @tropnevaDniveK.