Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Pouring Gas on the Fire
distributed 2/7/20 - ©2020

There's a saying about "pouring gas on the fire," which is a vivid way of describing intentional actions that make a bad situation worse.

The current US administration is pouring gas on the fire of species extinction. There are two specific examples of that wrong-headed and unconscionable policy direction -- and there are steps that we can take to push for policy changes.

As the readers of Eco-Justice Notes are well aware, I see the active protection of God's creation as a central mandate for people of faith and conscience. Now it the time for vigorous steps that will tamp down the blazing fire of species extinction, not make it blaze hotter and higher.

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The fire of species extinction is big and dangerous, and I've written about it multiple times in the last year or so. (The climate crisis is not the only threat we're facing.)

A major report was released by the UN last spring, with the headline-grabbing announcement that around 1 million species are threatened with extinction within decades -- about 1/8 of all species on Earth. "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."

The IPBES report made it clear that this is a serious threat. "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." Widespread and rapid extinction isn't an aesthetic problem, where we won't get to watch cute critters. The loss of so many species dangerously destabilizes the entire web of life.

Other reports have spoken about the "insect apocalypse." A sermon that helped open my eyes to this crisis told me, "In German nature preserves, the place where this has been studied most thoroughly, over the last 27 years the number of flying insects has diminished by 75%. Or if you prefer your depressing statistics closer to home, here in the US, over the last 20 years, monarch butterfly populations have fallen by 90%. ... That's not just a 'decline' in population, that's a holocaust."

The fire of species extinction has been a concern for some time, even as the scope and urgency of this crisis has become more evident in recent years. "Firefighting" has taken place in several ways.

In the United States, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been the most prominent set of policies for dealing with species extinction. Passed in 1973, the ESA has been a successful -- and controversial -- force for the protection of threatened and endangered species within the country, and it also deals with international trade of listed species.

Going farther back, another important US law is the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, passed in 1918. Originally, it was written to deal with the over-hunting related to decorative feathers for women's hats. There are now over 1,000 species covered by the Act, providing protection not only from hunting, but from other direct and indirect threats.

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The fire of species extinction is blazing, and the US administration has taken two actions in the last six months that make the crisis worse -- "pouring gas on the fire."

Last August, new rules to implement the ESA were published. I wrote in detail about those shortly after they were released. With the stated purpose of "easing the regulatory burden on the American public," the new rules are widely seen as weakening protections for at-risk species. Among the changes, there are much tighter limits on what can be considered "critical habitat;" it is much harder to look at the coming impacts of climate change; "threatened" species which are not yet "endangered" have weakened protections; and federal agencies may now consider possible economic impacts when a species is being considered for listing. The overall result will be less protection for fewer species, at a time when the need for far greater protection is scientifically obvious.

In another action just a few weeks ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a proposed rule that eliminates the Migratory Bird Treaty Act's (MBTA) prohibition on the "incidental taking" of migratory birds from industrial activities, such as birds flying into uncovered oil pits or being electrocuted on poorly insulated power lines. As an Audubon Society action alert details, under the new rule "MBTA's protections apply only to activities that purposefully kill birds, exempting all industrial hazards from enforcement. Any 'incidental' death -- no matter how inevitable, avoidable or devastating the impact on birds -- becomes immune from enforcement under the law."

In both of these actions, the administration dealt with aspects of the laws that were controversial, and in some settings too vague. Rather than clarifying and tightening regulations, though, the administration has dramatically weakened the laws.

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The actions by the US administration to weaken these laws are damaging to God's creation, and place at even greater risk species that are already suffering. There are things that we can do to restore protections.

*** Restoring the Endangered Species Act
There's a bill in Congress that will repeal the ESA regulations of last August. The "Protect America's Wildlife and Fish in Need of Conservation Act of 2019" is more popularly known as "The PAW and FIN Conservation Act" (some creative person had fun with that name!). At the end of January, PAW and FIN was passed by the House Natural Resources Committee. The next step is a full vote in the House.

Contact your US Representative to urge their support of PAWS and FIN. You can, of course, contact them directly with a phone call or email. Wild Earth Guardians has a form that will allow you to send a personalized message to your Representative asking them to co-sponsor HR 4348. (Check first to see if your Rep is already one of the 98 co-sponsors. If so, call or email to express your thanks!) The Endangered Species Coalition has a more general form calling on both Senators and Representatives to pass the Act.

*** Restoring the Migratory Bird Treaty Act
Legislation was introduced in January that would require industry to take proactive measures to reduce bird deaths, including "incidental take." Relevant businesses would implement best management practices and document compliance, further driving innovation in how to best prevent bird deaths. The bill also would increase funding for the conservation of birds impacted by these industrial hazards.

Audubon has form that you can use to tell Congress to restore protections to migratory birds. Here, too, a personal phone call or email to your Representative with your own wording is especially effective.

You may also submit formal comments to the US Fish and Wildlife Service about their proposed rule, and demand that protections for "incidental take" be preserved.

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The Judeo-Christian faith tradition is clear that all creatures, all species, are beloved by God. The ethical principle of the "integrity of creation" insists that each species is valuable in its own right.

In this time when the crisis of species extinction is becoming so evident, we need to act strongly for the protection of those creatures which are endangered and at risk. I strongly urge you to submit comments to the FWS, and to contact your Representatives and Senators to support legislation that will increase the protections for all of God's cherished creatures.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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