California Attorney General Promises Suit Over Endangered Species Rollback

1 min
A rare and endangered California condor lands on a ledge in Marble Gorge, east of Grand Canyon National Park, on March 24, 2007 west of Page, Arizona.  (David McNew/Getty Images)

Within hours of the Trump administration's announcement that it is rolling back enforcement of the landmark Endangered Species Act, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra vowed to mount a rigorous legal challenge.

During a hastily organized call with reporters, Becerra said the rollbacks put California's threatened species at greater risk of extinction and promised to sue.

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"We don’t look to pick a fight every time this administration decides to take an action," he said. "But we challenge these actions by this administration because it is necessary."

He charged that the administration's decision is meant to "boost the profits of companies that are already putting these species at risk."

The Trump administration on Monday rolled out some of the broadest changes in decades to enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, allowing the government to put an economic cost on saving a species and and make it harder to consider climate change in evaluating the status of a species.

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Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and other administration officials contend the changes improve efficiency of oversight while protecting rare species.

“The best way to uphold the Endangered Species Act is to do everything we can to ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal — recovery of our rarest species,” Bernhardt said in a statement. “An effectively administered Act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation.”

Last summer, the administration announced its intention to rollback protections provided by the law and published a draft proposal. Today, it announced the final rule change.

The administration's plan will go into effect 30 days after being published in the federal register, barring a legal challenge to prevent it. The New York Times is reporting that the administration could publish the new rules in the federal register as soon as this week.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and Defenders of Wildlife President Jamie Rappaport Clark joined Becerra in promising a swift lawsuit.

During the press call, Healey said relaxing the regulations is illegal because the changes violate the text and purpose of the Endangered Species Act. She said the changes are "arbitrary, capricious, and ignore the science."

Also, the administration failed to conduct a full study of how the changes would impact the environment and didn't allow for public comment.

Becerra said the rollbacks would require that the Fish and Wildlife Service craft individualized rules for each species. A move that, he said, would tangle California's 35 threatened animals and 98 plant species in unnecessary red tape.

"These species are categorized as threatened, and that’s based on science and data," Becerra said. "But today’s rules throw out science and data. Instead of using science and data they inject economic consideration into what should only be a science-driven decision."

The new rules water down protections for animals that are at risk of becoming endangered, or are designated as threatened, and make it easier to move a species off the endangered species list.

One of the species that could be affected is the California condor, North America's largest bird that once flew over most of California's coastal mountains. After years of being critically endangered, the bird has made a comeback in recent years.

The southern sea otter, the smallest marine mammal in North America, is listed as threatened. The otters live along the coast from San Mateo County in the north to Santa Barbara in the south.

Other California species that could be affected are the threatened northern spotted owl -- its habitat  has declined as a result of timber harvesting and land development -- and the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtle, as well as the threatened San Clemente bell sparrow.

The Endangered Species Act is credited with helping save scores of animals and plants from extinction since President Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1973, including the bald eagle, California condor and grizzly bear. The Endangered Species Act currently protects more than 1,600 species in the United States and its territories.

The administration’s changes include allowing economic cost to be taken into account as the federal government weighs protecting a struggling species, although the law stipulates that economic costs not be a factor in deciding whether to protect an animal. That prohibition was meant to ensure that the logging industry, for example, would not be able to push to block protections for a forest-dwelling animal on economic grounds.

Gary Frazer, an assistant director at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told reporters that the government would adhere to the law by disclosing the costs to the public, but officials wouldn’t factor economic considerations into their own decision making about protections.

“Nothing in here in my view is a radical change for how we have been consulting and listing species for the last decade or so,” Frazer said. Instead, he said, it brings “more transparency and certainty to the public about the way we’ll carry out our job.”

But Brett Hartl, a government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity conservation group, contended any such price tag would be inflated, and “an invitation for political interference” in the federal government’s decision whether to save a species.

“You have to be really naive and cynical and disingenuous to pretend” otherwise, Hartl said. “That’s the reason that Congress way back...prohibited the Service from doing that,” Hartl said. “It’s a science question: Is a species going extinct, yes or no?”

Other changes include ending blanket protections for species newly listed as threatened and a revision could block officials from considering the impact on wildlife from climate change, a major and growing threat to many species.

While the nearly half-century old act has been overwhelmingly successful in saving animals and plants that are listed as endangered, battles over some of the listings have been years-long and legend, pitting northern spotted owls, snail darters and other creatures and their protectors in court and political fights with industries, local opponents and others. Republican lawmakers have pushed for years to change the Endangered Species Act itself, in Congress.

Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who leads the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Monday’s changes in enforcement to the act were “a good start,” but said he would continue working to change the act itself.

Democrats blasted the changes, and conservationists promised a court fight.

The regulations "take a wrecking ball to one of our oldest and most effective environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act,” said Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, in a statement. “As we have seen time and time again, no environmental protection -- no matter how effective or popular -- is safe from this administration.”

At least 10 attorneys general joined conservation groups in protesting an early draft of the changes, saying they put more wildlife at greater risk of extinction.

“This effort to gut protections for endangered and threatened species has the same two features of most Trump administration actions: it’s a gift to industry, and it’s illegal,” said Drew Caputo, a vice president of litigation for the conservation advocacy group Earthjustice.

“We’ll see the Trump administration in court about it.”

Rebecca Riley, legal director of the nature program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the listing of species as threatened or endangered must be based on sound science and called the administration's decision "appalling."

“We are in the midst of an extinction crisis," she said, referring to the impact of climate change. "Rather than take steps to strengthen protections for these species, the Trump Administration is doing the opposite.”

A United Nations report warned in May that more than 1 million plants and animals globally face extinction, some within decades, owning to human development, climate change and other threats. The report called the rate of species loss a record.

Ellen Knickmeyer, of the Associated Press, contributed to this report. 

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