BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The Biden administration proposed new rules for protecting imperiled plants and animals on Wednesday as officials moved to reverse changes under former President Donald Trump that weakened the Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it would reinstate a decades-old regulation that mandates blanket protections for species newly classified as threatened.
That provision was dropped three years ago as part of a suite of changes to the application of the species law that was encouraged by industry even as extinctions accelerate globally due to habitat loss and other pressures.
Under Wednesday's proposal, officials also would no longer consider economic impacts when deciding if animals and plants need protection. Another change would expand requirements for federal agencies to consult with the wildlife service or the National Marine Fisheries Service before taking actions that could affect threatened or endangered species.
Details on the proposed rules, which will take months to finalize, were obtained by The Associated Press in advance of their public release. They'll face strong pushback from Republican lawmakers, who say President Joe Biden's Democratic administration has hampered oil, gas and coal development, and favors conservation over development.
“These proposed rules take us in the wrong direction and are entirely unnecessary given the proven track record of success from private conservationists and state and local land managers," said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Bruce Westerman, a Republican from Arkansas.
Industry groups have long viewed the 1973 Endangered Species Act as an impediment. Under Trump they successfully lobbied to weaken the law’s regulations as part of a broad dismantling of environmental safeguards. Trump officials rolled back endangered species rules and protections for the northern spotted owl, gray wolves and other species.
Restoring those rules could speed up protections and the designation of critical habitat for threatened species, including salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
The spotted owl decision was reversed in 2021 after career wildlife officials said Trump's political appointees used faulty science to justify opening millions of acres of West Coast forest to potential logging. Protections for wolves across most of the U.S. were restored by a federal court last year and the Biden administration has said it will decide by next February if they should remain in place.
Many of the changes under Trump were finalized during his last weeks in office, giving the Republican administration little time to put them into action.
Biden administration officials say they are trying to bring the endangered species law into alignment with its original intent and purpose. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams said in a statement that the changes "reaffirm our commitment to conserving America’s wildlife and ensuring the Endangered Species Act works for both species and people.”
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Assistant Administrator Janet Coit said the rules would ensure the species law remains effective as climate change alters habitats around the globe, and plants and animals become extinct.
The Biden administration had earlier reversed Trump’s decision to weaken enforcement of the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which made it harder to prosecute bird deaths caused by the energy industry. And officials under Biden withdrew a 2020 rule that limited which lands and waters could be designated as places where imperiled animals and plants could receive federal protection.
But environmentalists have been frustrated that it's taken more than two years for Biden to act on some of the Trump-era rollbacks. Stoking their urgency is the prospect of a new Republican administration following the 2024 election that could yet again ease protections.
“These are promising steps to get us back to the Endangered Species Act's purpose, its power to protect,” attorney Kristen Boyles with Earthjustice said of the new rules. The group sued on behalf of environmental groups to block the Trump rules and prevailed in U.S. District Court then lost on appeal.
An array of industry groups have long maintained that economic impacts are not given enough consideration in U.S. government wildlife decisions. Those groups range from livestock and ranching organizations to trade associations representing oil, gas and mining interests.
The Endangered Species Act is credited with helping save the bald eagle, California condor and scores of other animals and plants from extinction since President Richard Nixon signed it into law. It currently protects more than 1,600 species in the United States and its territories.