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Fish and Wildlife reconsiders protections for rare species

Susan Combs, who will oversee the service, has likened endangered species to incoming missiles.

 

In March, Susan Combs became temporary assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, in charge of overseeing both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. Combs, a Texas rancher and politician with a history of hostility toward protected species, fought to avoid protecting dwindling Texas species when she served as comptroller. Her appointment happened quietly on a Saturday and had been not announced on the department’s website as of this writing. Environmental advocacy groups believe her appointment invalid, because Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, not President Donald Trump, appointed her. The nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council commented, “In typical Trump administration fashion, (Combs) now oversees what she hopes to dismantle.”

Combs’ controversial appointment comes as the Fish and Wildlife Service is quietly but radically altering its approach to the Endangered Species Act, from species protection to habitat management.

Susan Combs was recently appointed the temporary assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. Formerly, as the Texas state comptroller, she took control of the state's endangered species program and often opposed protections.

According to a draft document obtained by E & E News, the agency is considering tossing blanket protections for threatened species. Currently, almost 1,300 federally protected species are considered “endangered,” or at imminent risk of extinction, while almost 400 are “threatened,” or almost endangered. In 1978, Fish and Wildlife began giving threatened species the same protections as endangered ones, although people affected by this could apply for exemptions.

In April, the Louisiana pinesnake, one of North America’s rarest snakes, received threatened status. But landowners and timber producers may still conduct activities – including forest management and herbicide applications – that could harm the dark-patterned reptiles, which are imperiled by habitat loss.

The changes worry Brett Hartl, government affairs director with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. The original policy was intended to prevent threatened species from becoming endangered.  “Effectively, what the Trump administration is doing, for all threatened species moving forward, is making it harder to recover them,” he said. 

But Timothy Male, executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Policy Innovation Center, says that because the changes would mean less uncertainty for private landowners, they might become less antagonistic to threatened species on their property.

“Especially in the West, it’s often federal action that’s really the threat, and ranchers or other private landowners or land interests get caught up in the middle,” Male said. Long-term, the changes could even encourage conservation: “If you know that, once an endangered species reaches threatened status, it’s going to be managed or regulated differently, that can be a really powerful incentive,” he said.

The agency — which declined to comment — is also reconsidering critical habitat, another core part of the Endangered Species Act. Whenever a species is federally protected, the landscape it needs to survive is supposed to become “critical habitat.” Federal agencies must go through permitting for projects that might harm critical habitat, while private landowners need permission for projects that receive federal funds.

The San Rafael cactus is endemic to central Utah and was listed as endangered in 1987 due to threats from collection for horticultural purposes, OHV related impacts, and mineral exploration.
Daniela Roth/USFWS

In 2016, the Obama administration clarified how critical habitat worked, partly in response to lawsuits from conservation organizations. Previously, land use could occur as long as it didn’t nudge species toward extinction. Under the 2016 policy, actions that could stop a species from recovering enough to be delisted could be regulated, too. “If environmentalists can go to court and challenge federal actions – things like timber harvests, mining, grazing, all the things the feds can be involved in permitting – and just show that it’s going to adversely modify habitat, not jeopardize the species, that’s a big stick,” University of Vermont Law professor Patrick Parenteau said.

The 2016 policy also loosened requirements for designating critical habitat where a species does not currently live, if that unoccupied habitat is essential to its survival. Future habitat matters, said Parenteau. “Climate change is moving species poleward and upward. The idea of unoccupied habitat for climate change is migration corridors, adaptation and relocation.”

But soon after Trump’s inauguration, 20 states joined a lawsuit challenging these changes, dropping it only in March, when the administration agreed to reconsider them.

The lawsuit called the Endangered Species Act “present-focused,” applying only to places where protected species could currently live, not possible future habitat. For that to be designated, the plaintiffs said, all available occupied habitat had to first be designated and found inadequate. Only then could unoccupied habitat be designated. Otherwise, they warned, entire states could become critical habitat. “The states made wild, outlandish claims you could designate anywhere in the U.S. That’s foolish nonsense,” Parenteau said. “(The agency) would be sued for sure if they did.” In reality, Parenteau said, critical habitat’s main harm may be lowering property values because of stigma.

Some question critical habitat’s effectiveness. A 2015 study found that, for seven years, more than 88,000 projects affecting such habitat went ahead largely unaltered, even when they threatened endangered species’ survival. And according to the Center for Biological Diversity, the agency has yet to designate critical habitat for more than 600 species. That task now will be overseen by Combs, who, according to the Austin American-Statesman, once referred to proposed endangered species as “incoming Scud missiles.”

Note: An earlier version incorrectly referred to the National Parks Service.

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor for High Country News.