California Leads Lawsuit Against Rollback of Endangered Species Protections

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A humpback whale breaches in a lagoon on June 04, 2019 in Alameda, California.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has filed suit to block reduced enforcement of the federal Endangered Species Act, a regulatory rollback announced by the Trump administration a little more than a month ago.

The lawsuit, which was filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, argues that the changes undertaken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service are unlawful. Endangered species protections are bedrock environmental law, and California leaders warned that less protection will leave threatened species at risk of extinction. California is leading the suit along with Massachusetts and Maryland. Altogether, 17 states have signed on, along with New York City and the District of Columbia.

Becerra said that California is home to hundreds of endangered and threatened species and is responsible for preventing the bald eagle, California condor, grizzly bear, humpback whale and other iconic animals from going extinct. He said the stakes are rising “as we face the unprecedented threat of a climate emergency."

“Now is the time to strengthen our planet’s biodiversity, not to destroy it,” Becerra said in a statement.


The moves by the administration allow government to apply an economic cost to saving a species and makes it more difficult for agencies to consider climate change in evaluating a species' endangered status.

The Trump administration contends that officials can study the impact on the economy of listing an animal and provide that information to the public, but are restricted from using that information to inform their decision-making.

The moves were welcomed by some industry groups, including the American Petroleum Institute and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Owls, Sparrows Turtles and Plants

The law currently protects more than 1,600 species in the U.S. Currently, California is home to 287 threatened or endangered species, 182 plants and 105 animals. That is more than any other state except Hawaii. Threatened animals in California include the San Clemente bell sparrow, the northern spotted owl, and the southern sea other, the smallest marine mammal in North America. Endangered animals include the Olive Ridley sea turtle, the Mission blue butterfly and the desert pupfish.

While ecologists and scientists are concerned about the animals, many are also worried about the state’s biodiversity. There are more plants on the list in California than animals, including species of cypress, manzanita, meadowfoam and wild-buckwheat.

Mark Schwartz, a plant ecologist with UC Davis, said while the changes could impact listed plants and animals, they could also have grave consequences for species that are facing climate pressure but haven’t been considered yet.

The law identifies any species listed as “threatened” as one that is “likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.” The “endangered" status is given to a species that faces extinction.

Critics say the Trump administration’s changes seek to alter how agencies interpret what constitutes “foreseeable future” by ignoring or downplaying the impacts of warming and climate change.

“Altering language on foreseeable future to reduce the capacity to think about climate change is a threat to species that may face significant impacts,” Schwartz said.

Becerra’s suit challenges that the federal government’s changes are illegal under the Endangered Species Act and are “arbitrary and capricious” under the Administrative Procedure Act. Becerra argues that the new stipulations “inject economic considerations” into what should be a science-driven process, a shift Becerra says is expressly forbidden by the law. He also said, in a press release, that the  changes “radically depart from the longstanding, conservation-based agency policy."