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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

More Danger for the Endangered
distributed 8/16/19 - ©2019

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Joy Jamison, of Louisville, Kentucky. Her generous support helps make this publication possible.
The Global Climate Strike is coming soon - Friday, September 20. Plan to attend an event near you (outside the US), and bring a group from your church or community. Bring the strike into your congregation's worship on Sunday, September 22.

I wish I could believe them, but ...

On Monday, the US Department of the Interior and the Commerce Department published new rules that will be used to implement the Endangered Species Act. In the press release announcing the rule change, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross was quoted: "The revisions finalized with this rulemaking fit squarely within the President's mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species' protection and recovery goals."

I believe the part about easing the so-called "regulatory burden." I'm having a much harder time believing that at-risk species will be protected, or assisted toward recovery.

The finalized rules will take effect in September. There's no public comment period -- apparently that happened back in 2017, while we were fighting countless other battles, like the downsizing of national monuments. Endangered species of plants and wildlife, I fear, are now in even greatger danger.

As I'll describe below, if the US is to genuinely protect endangered and threatened species, these new rules will have to be rejected in the courts, or perhaps overturned by Congress.

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To set a bit of context, remember that about three months ago, a major report was released from the UN detailing recent findings about unprecedented rates of extinction. Three pieces of that report that I quoted back in May (5/17/19 and 5/24/19) say:

  • "The global rate of species extinction is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years and is accelerating."
  • "Nature is essential for human existence and good quality of life. Most of nature's contributions to people are not fully replaceable, and some are irreplaceable."
  • "Nature can be conserved, restored and used sustainably while simultaneously meeting other global societal goals through urgent and concerted efforts fostering transformative change."

The big UN report made it clear that widespread extinction is a threat to the stability of the biosphere, and to human society. One commentator on the report noted, "If we are to halt the continued loss of nature, then the world's legal, institutional and economic systems must be reformed entirely. And this change needs to happen immediately."

The "easing of regulatory burdens" is not the kind of total systemic reform that is necessary to slow the frightening rate of extinction. To me, what has just been done feels painfully similar to the Trump administration's action on the climate crisis. The IPCC issued dire warnings, but the US government pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, and announced a policy of "energy dominance" that will lead to increased climate emissions. Here, the UN warns of the dangers in the extinction crisis, and the Administration substantially weakens the rules that might protect species.

How seriously does the Trump administration take the crisis of biodiversity loss? CBS News quotes Gregg Renkes, the Interior Department's Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy:

"We want to accomplish the objective of the Act. We want to protect and recover endangered species and threatened species. But we also do it in a way that strikes a regulatory balance, that protects people and the public from, you know, over-committing to this issue."

Heaven forbid we should "over-commit" to protecting God's creation. So, as the New York Times said, "Over all, the revised rules appear very likely to clear the way for new mining, oil and gas drilling, and development in areas where protected species live."

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The new rules for administering the Endangered Species Act run for hundreds of pages, and are very technical. There are many cases where the change of a single word from the previous rules will have a significant impact.

Forbes has a short article detailing some of the key changes and their implications, and High Country News has a longer analysis.

One of the major rule changes will make it harder to consider climate change as a factor in extinction. Regulators will only be able to look at risks to species that will occur in the "foreseeable future." The New York Times said of that shift in language:

That's a semantic change with far-reaching implications, because it enables regulators to disregard the effects of extreme heat, drought, rising sea levels and other consequences of climate change that may occur several decades from now.

Smithsonian Magazine points at another big change about the lands that at-risk species need to survive.

One new stipulation requires regulators to assess lands that are currently occupied by threatened or endangered species before looking at unoccupied areas. But as Madeleine Gregory of Vice explains, many species are at risk precisely because they have been forced into a small fraction of their original habitat, and protecting more land around them can help species recover.

The CBS News report tells of the dusky gopher frog. There are only 200 or so in the wild, all living around one Mississippi pond. Forty miles away, in Louisiana, there's another pond where the frogs used to live, and that would be good habitat to reintroduce and protect the species. Earlier this year, the Trump administration dropped efforts to claim the Louisiana pond as critical habitat. The new rule changes would make it standard practice not to consider habitat where species used to exist, but no longer do.

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Five years ago, I wrote about complicated efforts to protect the Greater Sage Grouse, a fascinating bird of the Intermountain West -- and one which is not at all adaptable to changes in its habitat. The grouse are going to be much more at risk under these new rules.

In that Notes, I pointed toward three theological reasons to protect species. Briefly, there's the religious principle of "the integrity of creation," there's the ecological reality of God's inherently relational creation, and there's the old traditions of Judeo-Christian ethics which state our obligation to care for "the least of these" -- which includes livestock and wildlife.

The weakening of rules for the Endangered Species Act is a rejection of ethical principles about protecting creation. The changes are especially egregious when they are being done so blatantly to make life easier and more profitable for business.

Lawsuits are already being prepared to challenge the new rules, probably on the grounds that these changes don't adequately enact the goals of the Endangered Species Act -- which still stands as an important piece of legislation. The courts may overturn, or at least delay, these rules.

The other option to protect species would be for Congress to reject the new rules under the Congressional Review Act. That procedure gives Congress 60 day (counting only days when the legislature is in session) to disapprove a final rule issued by a federal agency. A rule disapproved using this mechanism is not only nullified; the agency is also prevented from reissuing a "substantially similar" rule in the future unless Congress authorizes it to do so via subsequent legislation.

Getting such disapproval through both houses of Congress on such a short timeline would be a really hard political battle, requiring a massive and broad-based outpouring of support from the US public. You can contact your Representative and Senators now demanding that they overturn the new Endangered Species rules. (Environmental Action has a form that you can use.)

I sincerely doubt that the new rules will help to protect or recover endangered species in the US. The rules exclude consideration of climate impacts, and severely narrow the areas that might be claimed as essential habitat. The rules are bad public policy, and they violate religious ethics about protecting creation. Speak up now to demand that courts and Congress reject the rules.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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