According to the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, more than 40 percent of mammal species have experienced severe population declines over the last century, meaning that their range has shrunk more than 80 percent.
Almost 200 species of vertebrates have gone extinct over the last 100 years, a rate of about two extinctions per year. That’s 100 times the historic rate. Previous mass die-offs have been caused by asteroids, volcanos and other natural catastrophes. But this one has been triggered by human population growth, development, and climate change, scientists have concluded.
In the face of this rapid decline in biodiversity, a few things have worked to protect nonhuman life. Notably, in the U.S., the Endangered Species Act of 1973 has succeeded in saving several animals faced with elimination, including American alligators, whooping cranes, grizzly bears, peregrine falcons, California condors, the American gray wolf, and, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the Delmarva fox squirrel.
So what is the Trump Administration and its allies in Congress proposing to do? Weaken the Endangered Species Act, although the word they use is to “modernize” it.
Here’s Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
“Congress last reauthorized the Endangered Species Act with amendments of substance in 1988 – 30 years ago,” Barrasso said. “Even the U.S. Constitution has been amended more recently than the Endangered Species Act. Stakeholders are making it clear that the Endangered Species Act can be improved.”
The changes that are being considered would benefit the oil and gas industry, the mining industry, and real estate developers who have long complained about the act’s restrictions on the destruction of wildlife habitat.
Three revisions being proposed by Republicans would: 1) For the first time introduce economic considerations into the now purely scientific decision-making process of what species should be classified as endangered; 2) Strip away automatic protections for a class of threatened species that have not yet declined enough to be endangered; and 3) Remove any considerations of long-term climate change impacts on the survival of plants and animals.
Bill Snape is Senior Counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The theme of all three is absolutely a rollback of the Endangered Species Act,” said Snape. “In terms of climate change, it ignores that climate change is even taking place. And, at least in regard to threatened species, it would be an elimination of all protections. Overall, it would be a disaster for America’s wildlife. We would see more species go extinct. And we would see our natural world continue to deteriorate.”
Critics of the act frequently point to examples of obscure-sounding endangered species – like the dusky gopher frog or the American burying beetle – standing in the way of the development of oil fields or subdivisions.
But even in these highly publicized cases, it’s rarely just a single species that is protected by adjusting the development plans. Whole natural systems and landscapes are protected.
Maryland U.S. Representative John Sarbanes, a Democrat, is a champion of protections for wildlife.
“When you attack the endangered species act, at its core, you are removing the kinds of protections that are designed to, overall, benefit ecosystems and our environment in ways that mean a lot for public health, as well,” Sarbanes said. “And I think it needs to be looked at through that lens.”
In the past, legislative efforts to dismantle the Endangered Species Act have been derailed by Democrats in Congress. But with both the House and Senate controlled by Republicans, and President Trump on an anti-regulatory roll, safeguards for nature are themselves standing before a bulldozer.