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Road Kill: Side-Swiping the Environmental Protection Act

More and more species will feel a potentially fatal impact.

The Pacific walrus was denied protected status early this month. (Photo: US Geological Survey)

Part of the Series

A senate appropriations subcommittee, led by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) will resist the Trump administration’s efforts to slash spending for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department this week. Last summer, Murkowski warned the White House that there was no chance her panel would agree to cut the EPA’s $8 billion budget by almost a third. But the budget isn’t the only thing that’s endangered. The administration is leading a campaign to toss out a growing list of rules and regulations that protect our environment and the all plants and animals that are trying to thrive alongside us.

To see more stories like this, visit Moyers & Company at Truthout.

An Endangered Act

The Endangered Species Act itself is under attack. Since January, congressional Republicans have launched at least 46 legislative assaults on the legislation or a specific species, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Five bills to amend the legislation were advanced by the House Natural Resources Committee just this month.

“The ESA is a landmark statute created with noble intent,” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement reported by The Washington Post. “It also includes fatal design flaws that inhibit greater success and handicap state-led, science-based recovery strategies.”

One measure proposes to allow weighing economic factors in the decision to list an endangered species or not. While another amendment would not only remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list but also limit further review of the removal. And another says that state and local government data must also be considered as “best available” science when the federal government makes a decision about a species. But environmental advocates fear that if more decision-making power on the fate of species is given to state and local governments, industry interests and money will hold even more sway.

The Battle Over the Rusty Patched Bumblebee

First up was the decision to “delay” the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to list the rusty-patched bumblebee as an endangered species. Over the past two decades the population and range of this Midwestern bee had declined by 90 percent. The Endangered Species Act, administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), was signed into action in 1973 by Richard Nixon. The ESA protects species and also “the ecosystems upon which they depend.” But corporate interests want unfettered access to many of those same ecosystems and the profits that come from spraying, plowing, logging, mining, drilling or fracking. After environmental groups sued, the rusty patched bumblebee got its endangered designation back last spring. But a growing number of species are having a rougher time.

Rejected Protections

Earlier this month the US Fish and Wildlife Service denied protection to 25 species that scientists have found to be imperiled.

The Pacific Walrus

The Pacific walrus spends its life in the Arctic on large chunks of sea ice. And while climate change is slowly melting the walrus’ habitat, climate change denial could well speed up its demise. The walrus was denied protected status early this month. The Guardian reports:

Although the federal agency acknowledged the species was facing “stressors” from climate change — primarily the decline of sea ice, ocean warming and ocean acidification — it said the population was currently stable and could possibly adapt to the changing environment.

This assurance was met with dismay by the Center for Biological Diversity, the conservation group that began legal action 10 years ago to list the walrus. “This disgraceful decision is a death sentence for the walrus,” Shay Wolf, the Center’s climate science director, told The Guardian. The decline of summer sea ice in the Arctic pushes walruses ashore where there is less food and a greater danger to walrus offspring from predators. The decision was not based on any scientific evidence showing the walrus is secure, according to the Center, but rather on the agency’s argument that climate-change models are unreliable after more than 30 years out. Unless the Fish and Wildlife Services reverses this decision, the Center for Biological Diversity plans to sue.

The Florida Keys Mole Skink

The Fish and Wildlife Service relied on the same inability-to-see-the-future argument to turn down a listing petition for the Florida Keys mole skink, a colorful lizard that is already facing serious decline on the beaches and in the coastal forests that are threatened by coastal development, rising seas and destructive hurricanes like Irma. The Washington Post reports, “The service determined that while the skink’s habitat could shrink by as much as 44 percent at the high end, most of the habitat and soils that the species needs ‘will remain into the foreseeable future,’ at least out to the year 2060.”

Bicknell’s Thrush

Bicknell’s thrush is a rare migratory songbird that nests in dense spruce-fir forests at high elevations in the mountains of the Northeast and Southeastern Canada. Climate change is shifting its habitat to higher elevations and constricting its range. But the administration’s position is, again, that we cannot see the future. The Center for Biodiversity told The Adirondack Explorer that much of the thrush breeding habitat will vanish over the next century and maintains that the agency’s refusal to list the bird is,”absolutely political.” A spokesperson for the USFWS denied that their decisions were political, maintaining that they are following the standards defined in the ESA itself, “a species must either be in danger of extinction now (endangered) or at risk of becoming so in the foreseeable future (threatened).”

A Growing Number of Rejections

Black-Backed Woodpecker

Other rejected species include the black-backed woodpecker, which is threatened by logging practices in coniferous forests; the Northern Rocky Mountains fisher, a rare cousin of the mink and otter, that is succumbing to trapping, logging and climate change in old growth forests; Kirtland’s snake, which has lost its prairie wetland habitat to urban sprawl, agriculture and climate change; and a number of species of crayfish, toads and snails.

The high number of rejections was particularly galling to the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned for many of the listings. Noah Greenwald, who heads its endangered species program, told The Washington Post that the agency had to make decisions for 62 possible listings by the end of September — and 29 were rejected, six species were protected, six decisions were delayed and 21 are yet to come. While Greenwald said he didn’t see a definitive pattern in the rejections, he did note that at least two of the six listed species are found in remote areas where they do not compete with industry or development.

Rolling Back Species Protection

Yellowstone Grizzly

The Yellowstone grizzly, whose numbers have increased from fewer than 150 to more than 700, was removed from the endangered species list last summer after 42 years. The New York Times reported that a number of conservation groups and Native American tribes opposed the move, arguing that the grizzly’s future is far from certain given that the ecological uncertainty of climate change could easily become a future threat. In good news for grizzlies, however, a US District judge ruled that a small population of grizzly bears living in Montana and Idaho near the Canada border can be considered endangered even if they are not “on the brink of extinction.”

Last summer, the Associated Press reported that the Alliance for Wild Rockies sued the Federal Wildlife Service, warning that the bears would become extinct unless the agency listed them as endangered and increased limits on logging, mining, and other industry in the grizzlies’ habitat. The judge’s ruling clarifies that the ESA does not require that a plant or animal species be on the “brink of extinction” before it is listed as endangered.

Whales and Sea Turtles

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service also killed a new rule that protected endangered whales and sea turtles from getting caught by vessels that use mile-long drift gill nets. The rule would have shut down the use of these long nets for swordfish fishing for up to two seasons if too many of nine different species of whale and turtle were being snagged. A fisheries spokesman told the Associated Press that the rule would have more substantial economic impact than they originally realized.

Of course, all these actions have defenders on both sides. In an email to, NOAA fisheries said it’s wrong to characterize the rule rollback as politically motivated. NOAA fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein wrote: “This was not a political decision. It was based on science. Even the Marine Mammal Commission, the science panel that advises the government on protection of marine mammals, recommended that we NOT adopt the new regulations. They said, ‘Further, the Commission finds the proposed regulations to be inadequately justified, inconsistently applied, not based on the latest and best available data and science, and unlikely to achieve the stated goal.'”

NOAA says that protections put in place in the late 1990s have already greatly reduced the number of entanglements of the endangered species and that the new rules were not necessary. Milstein further notes that the decision was made after a normal review process including a period of public comment. Read more about the rules changes at the Los Angeles Times.

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