The Endangered Species Act Is Under Attack

Politicians backed by extractive industry interests are now undertaking some of the most serious threats ever seen in the four decades of the Endangered Species Act, our nation's landmark conservation law.

Southern resident orca J16 makes rainbows while surfacing in Puget Sound.
Southern resident orca J16 makes rainbows while surfacing in Puget Sound. The southern resident orca population is protected under the Endangered Species Act. (Miles Ritter / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Recognizing that extinction is irreversible, the United States did in 1973 what no country had done before, establishing a commitment to protect and restore the species that are most at risk of extinction.

The Endangered Species Act is one of the most popular and effective environmental laws ever enacted.

In the four decades since the Endangered Species Act became law, 99% of species protected under the Endangered Species Act have not perished.

But in 2019, the Trump administration finalized an “extinction plan,” dramatically weakening the Endangered Species Act and violating the spirit and purpose of the law itself.

On behalf of environmental and animal protection groups, Earthjustice has brought the administration to court to challenge the new regulations.

July 31, 2020 The Trump administration has proposed another blow to imperiled species by issuing a new definition of “critical habitat” under the Endangered Species Act. Earthjustice will continue to defend the Act in court.

It takes millions of years for species to evolve — but if we fail to protect our incredible, diverse fellow species from man-made threats, they can be lost in the blink of an eye.

Earthjustice, born in the same era as the Endangered Species Act, has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure this critical statute is enforced, acting in the interest of hundreds of plants and animals to ensure their survival. These benefits extend to people too.

Humans are not isolated from their natural environment, and what happens to other creatures affects our own existence, too.

These six species are among the many that have been saved from extinction by the Endangered Species Act:

1. Gray Wolves

Wolves’ incredible comeback to the Northern Rockies is one of our country’s greatest wildlife success stories. Yet their future is now under threat.

The U.S. Department of the Interior, under newly confirmed Sec. David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, is finalizing plans to take away federal protections from nearly all gray wolves across the continental United States.

2. Bald Eagles

An Endangered Species Act success story, our national symbol today numbers around 10,000 pairs in the United States, recovered from a low of 417 known nesting pairs in 1963.

3. Grizzly Bears

Earthjustice has worked for decades to safeguard grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, winning key court cases in 2011 and in 2018 — the most recent court ruling spared grizzlies from a planned trophy hunt and reinstated protections that the administration had illegally taken away.

4. Killer Whales (Southern Resident)

Known to frequent the waters of Puget Sound, southern resident killer whales are starving. The critically endangered population reached a 34-year low in 2018 — 75 individuals — a problem exacerbated by the fact that no calves born in the previous three years have survived. Earthjustice legal work secured Endangered Species Act protections for the orcas in 2005. And we’ve worked for decades to restore the orcas’ primary food source — wild salmon.

5. Florida Manatees

After losing their endangered status in 2018, their population fell by record numbers as sewage, manure, and fertilizer runoff continue to choke their habitat with toxic algae. Earthjustice has worked for years both on behalf of the species and to curb the algae outbreaks.

6. Whooping Cranes

Earthjustice is challenging in court the use of the highly toxic pesticide Enlist Duo — a combination of glyphosate and 2,4-D — that the rare cranes are likely to consume on their migration path.

The Endangered Species Act is wildly popular among American voters. According to a national poll conducted in 2015, 90% of American voters support the Actimpressive results in an era of partisan strife.

Scientists believe we are currently undergoing the sixth mass wave of extinction ever to impact our planet. Stemming from human activity, this loss of biodiversity is occurring at an unprecedented pace. Many species — no one knows how many — are disappearing even before they are discovered. That’s why the Endangered Species Act is urgently needed.

Scientists estimated that without the Act, at least 227 additional species would have gone extinct between 1973 and 2005.

As important, the Act has protected millions of acres of forests, beaches, and wetlands — those species’ essential habitats — from degradation. Thanks to this legal safety net, today’s children are able to experience the wonder of rare wild creatures as living, breathing parts of our natural heritage, not as dusty museum specimens.

Now the Endangered Species Act is under political attack.

The Interior Department released a series of proposed changes in 2018 to the way the agency interprets and carries out actions under the Endangered Species Act — including changes to the requirement that federal agencies consult with expert wildlife agencies and scientists when seeking permits for projects such as logging or oil and gas drilling operations.

In addition, the Trump administration sought to incorporate economic considerations into decisions about whether or not species on the brink of extinction are protected — while not taking climate change into account.

The sweeping regulatory changes were finalized on Aug. 12, 2019. The rollbacks weaken endangered species protections by permitting actions that lead to the gradual destruction of a listed species as long as each step is sufficiently modest, creating a loophole exempting activities that could harm listed species by hastening climate change, and more.

Earthjustice’s lawsuit challenging the rollbacks makes three claims against the Trump administration’s new rules:

  1. The Trump administration failed to publicly disclose and analyze the harms and impacts of these rules, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
  2. The administration inserted new changes into the final rules that were never made public and not subject to public comment, cutting the American people out of the decision-making process.
  3. The administration violated the language and purpose of the Endangered Species Act by unreasonably changing requirements for compliance with Section 7, which requires federal agencies to ensure that actions they authorize, fund, or carry out do not jeopardize the existence of any species listed, or destroy or adversely modify designated critical habitat of any listed species.

Read the legal complaint:

Complaint: Challenging the Trump Administration Attack on Endangered Species Act (PDF)
Complaint: Challenging the Trump Administration Attack on Endangered Species Act (Text)

“This effort to gut protections for endangered and threatened species has the same two features of most Trump administration actions: it’s a gift to industry, and it’s illegal,” said Drew Caputo, Earthjustice Vice President of Litigation for Lands, Wildlife, and Oceans. “We’ll see the Trump administration in court.”

Meanwhile, the Congressional Western Caucus announced the introduction of nearly 20 new bills on Jan. 15, 2020, to erode the Endangered Species Act. .

The bills would undermine key portions of the Endangered Species Act, including interagency consultations under Section 7 of the Act and listings decisions and critical habitat designations under Section 4 of the Act.

“Despite scientists’ warnings about the major global extinction crisis, the Western Caucus is launching an all-out assault on the Endangered Species Act, our nation’s best tool to protect imperiled species,” said Marjorie Mulhall, legislative director for Earthjustice.

“The Trump administration put the first nail in the coffin for wildlife facing extinction, and now the Western Caucus is pulling out its hammer to try and finish the job. We will work with our allies to stop this attack on vulnerable plants and animals.”