Extinction Crisis Looms as Trump Attacks Endangered Species Act

Earthjustice’s Drew Caputo breaks down recent rollbacks aimed at the Endangered Species Act, and what they’ll mean for the future of our most imperiled species.

Juvenile grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. Grizzlies imperiled by Trump administration's ESA rollback..
A juvenile grizzly stands in a summer wildflower field in Yellowstone National Park. The Trump administration's Endangered Species Act rollbacks imperil grizzlies and many other species. (Photo Courtesy of Tom Murphy)

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This week, the Trump administration finalized rules that overhaul the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, a bedrock environmental law that is both widely popular among the public and remarkably successful in protecting imperiled wildlife. The rollbacks come on the heels of several scientific reports warning that, as our planet heads straight toward a climate crisis, biological diversity is in a freefall and species extinction rates are accelerating.

For decades, Earthjustice has used the Endangered Species Act to protect wildlife like grizzles, wolves, and salmon. We’ve secured and defended endangered species protections for countless plants and animals — and our fights continue.

Drew Caputo, Earthjustice’s Vice President of Litigation for Lands, Wildlife, and Oceans, breaks down the rollbacks, who benefits from them, and how they threaten the future of our planet.

How will the Endangered Species Act rollbacks impact endangered species?

The changes to the act include:

  • allowing actions that gradually destroy listed species;
  • depriving newly listed threatened species from receiving automatic protections; and
  • including economic considerations in decisions that, until now, have been purely based on scientific analysis.

These rollbacks are happening at a time when the world’s eminent scientists have warned that, of the 8 million species that exist on the planet, about 1 million of them are at risk of extinction. And those 1 million species are at risk largely because of one species — us. That’s a pretty serious wakeup call because the earth’s ecosystem is a finely tuned biological machine. If you start removing significant chunks from the machine, you have to wonder how the machine is going to continue to operate.

Who benefits from weakening the Endangered Species Act?

It’s essentially the same crew of extractive industries that have been bankrolling and supporting the Trump administration from the get-go. It’s the oil and gas industry, the mining industry, the logging industry, and the agribusiness industry — basically every industry that benefits from taking public resources, including public lands and public waters that species need to survive, and using them in a way that industries can maximize private gain. Endangered species get in their way, so this is an effort by the Trump administration to get the Endangered Species Act out of the way of the extractive industry. The Trump administration wants to boost profits for extractive industries, and it comes at the expense of the species that can sustain the hit the least.

None of that should be a surprise. There really isn’t a dividing line between the Trump administration and extractive industries. They are essentially one and the same, and you can see that through their regulatory appointments. It’s a revolving door of industry insiders, including the Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, who was a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry. He’s the guy who ultimately made the decision to roll back Endangered Species Act protections.

Gutting the act has been at the heart of extractive industries’ wish list for decades. They’ve tried repeatedly to do that through Congress by passing legislation, but it was entirely unsuccessful because the Endangered Species Act is so popular. Now, they’re trying to accomplish the same result by gutting the regulations. That’s terrible policy, and it’s also illegal.

One of the Endangered Species Act rollbacks includes economic considerations in listing decisions. Why does this harm species’ protection?

If you prioritize short-term economic costs in these decisions, you’re basically going to buy yourself a whole lot more extinct species. Humans are keyed into focusing our entire economic and political system on short-term economic costs and benefits. The average human lifespan is less than 100 years, so we’re biologically adapted to think in relatively short terms, and we do that to our own detriment. Climate change is a classic example. If the driver of these decisions is short-term cost rather than the long-term biological health of the species, inevitably there are going to be decisions to protect fewer species and to give them fewer protections.

How essential is the Endangered Species Act as a legal tool for Earthjustice?

Our grizzly bear case is a classic example. Grizzlies have been hammered by habitat destruction and climate change, so they’re listed as an endangered species. In 2017, the Trump administration tried to throw grizzlies overboard by removing them from the endangered species list without doing the logical analysis that the Endangered Species Act requires. With this delisting, the states of Wyoming and Idaho were planning trophy hunts of bears that would have resulted in about two dozen dead bears in one season.

We went to court and overturned the delisting decision which blocked the hunt. There are two dozen bears roaming wild in Wyoming and Idaho today that would be dead right now without the Endangered Species Act, and without Earthjustice to enforce the act. That victory was a literal life and death reprieve for these iconic creatures. It showed what a powerful law and a determined enforcer of the law can do on the ground.

This rollback is just the latest attempt by the Trump administration to gut environmental laws. What motivates you to keep fighting?

I think we can use the law to make sure America and the world is a cleaner, greener, and more just place. Over the past two years, the courts have been handing Trump one loss after another, ruling that the administration cannot flout the requirements of existing environmental laws. When we’re able to do things like block a completely senseless action that’s going to resolve in several dozen dead grizzly bears, I feel like we’re doing a service not just for the bears and for the millions of people who care about them, we’re doing it for future generations.

On a more personal level, I’ve seen a grizzly bear in the wild. It is a majestic sight. They are one of the living embodiments of what it means to be wild. I was able to see that grizzly because my parents and their parents before me made a decision to protect that species. I want my kids and their kids’ kids to be able to see them in the wild the way that I did. To be able to strike a blow against the Trump administration by using the law and to be heard in court on behalf of the millions of Americans and our client groups, that is inspiring.

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.