TRAVERSE CITY, Michigan (AP) — The Biden administration on Thursday repealed a rule passed under former President Donald Trump that limited which lands and bodies of water could be designated as places where endangered animals and plants could receive federal protection.
A definition of “habitat,” published in December 2020, shortly before Trump left office, restricted areas the administration could identify as critical to certain wildlife. Environmental advocates said the move would put more species on the path to extinction, while supporters said it would secure private property rights.
By repealing the rule, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service said it could hinder their mission to make science-based critical habitat decisions.
“The growing extinction crisis highlights the importance of the Endangered Species Act and efforts to conserve species before the decline becomes irreversible,” said Shannon Estenoz, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
The rule was one of several steps the Trump administration took to scale back or change policies for endangered species, including lifting blanket protections for animals recently identified as endangered and preparing cost estimates for species saving. . Biden ordered a revision of his predecessor’s environmental regulations shortly after taking office.
Under the 1973 law, federal agencies may not fund, authorize, or undertake actions that would destroy or seriously damage critical habitats. It does not restrict activities on private land unless it involves government approval or financial support.
The Trump rule’s habitat definition was “unclear, confusing and inconsistent with the conservation purposes” of the law, the Fish and Wildlife Service and Marine Fisheries Service said in a joint statement.
It prevented agencies from selecting areas that do not currently meet the needs of a species but may result from restoration work or natural changes in the future, the statement said. Global warming is expected to change many landscapes and bodies of water, attracting species migrating from places no longer suitable for them.
Habitat degradation and loss is the main reason animals and plants are endangered, the agencies said, adding that they must be able to designate critical spaces “in a way that protects the habitats of the protected species and supports their recovery.”
Environmental groups have welcomed the reversal of the rule, which comes as scientists warn of a global dip in biodiversity. A 2019 United Nations report states that about 1 million plants and animals are facing extinction, with species loss tens or hundreds of times faster than before.
“It’s good news, but more work needs to be done to empower the (Endangered Species Act) so endangered wildlife has every chance to survive and thrive,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife.
Jonathan Wood, vice president of law and policy at the Property and Environment Research Center, a self-proclaimed “free market environmental activism” group, said repealing the rule would discourage private conservation efforts.
“Critical habitat designations penalize landowners who maintain or restore their habitat and thus are useless in areas that require substantial restoration to support the species,” Wood said. “The agency should encourage landowners to protect and restore their habitat, not alienating potential conservation partners.”
He represented forest landowners in a lawsuit that led to a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that prompted the Trump administration to draft its habitat definition.
The case involved the highly endangered dark gopher frog, which survives in just a few Mississippi ponds.
The Fish and Wildlife Service designated 1,500 acres (607 hectares) in neighboring Louisiana as critical habitat for the frog, though none lived. Environmentalists said more space was essential for the frog, but the landowner, timber company Weyerhaeuser Co., called it an unjust land grab.
The court ordered the government to decide a suitable habitat for the frog before designating areas as critical areas to save them.