Zinke’s latest change to the Endangered Species Act is more trouble than you think

Eric Holst

A critical provision of the Endangered Species Act is now under fire, showing that the U.S. Department of the Interior is no more immune to reckless ideas than other federal agencies have been as of late.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has asked the White House Office of Management and Budget to remove a long-standing regulation that provides default protection to threatened species.

Removing the so-called “blanket 4(d) rule” would immediately place more demands on the funding and staff of the already-strapped FWS. It would also make it more difficult to reverse species population declines – landing more animals and plants on the endangered species list – and fly in the face of years-long collaborative conservation efforts that prevented such listings.

This latest move comes on the heels of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s controversial decision to reopen federal plans for protecting an imperiled bird, the greater sage-grouse, and to pave way for oil and gas development in sensitive Western habitats.

All are short-sighted and ultimately counter-productive policy changes designed to benefit a relatively small, but powerful, group of industry lobbyists.

Already-swamped agency couldn’t meet new demands

If the blanket rule were eliminated, FWS staff would instead have to determine whether and what protections are “necessary and advisable” for each and every species listed as threatened.

Such changes come at a bad time for an understaffed agency operating on a tight budget. A species-by-species approach requires analysis of the best available science impacts to habitat and imperiled species, work that takes time and resources that simply don’t exist today. The funding level proposed by the Trump administration for 2019 would make things even worse.

The proposal to remove the blanket protection for imperiled species is perplexing, too, considering that it has built-in flexibilities for ranchers, farmers, loggers and other land users whose activities can be exempted from the rule – and often are.

To date, FWS has created special 4(d) rules for about one-quarter of species listed as threatened, including the Utah prairie dog.

Uncertainty and litigation that nobody needs

Under the blanket rule, species automatically earn protection from habitat changes that kill, injure or harm them – an essential and practical provision with built-in flexibility that saves agency resources, provides certainty for landowners, and keeps species off the endangered species list.

If special rules must be devised for each threatened species, listing protections will lack national consistency and landowners will have little clarity on how they affect private property.

That would trigger protracted litigation over what is “necessary and advisable” protection, while stripping the Endangered Species Act from a much-needed relief valve in favor of a patchwork of restrictions that really don’t work for anyone.

I’ve worked closely with energy and agricultural stakeholders over the last decade to find wildlife solutions that work within the ESA and provide certainty for industries looking to develop land responsibly.

What FWS is putting forward here is not such a solution.

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