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Pressure mounts to change Endangered Species Act

December 27, 2018

Fifty years ago, the bald eagle was on the brink of extinction in the 48 contiguous states. Habitat destruction, illegal shooting and decimation of its food supply from the pesticide DDT had put the bird in peril.

While there might have been as many as 100,000 nesting bald eagles across what is now the U.S. in 1782, when the bird was named the national emblem, there were only about 490 breeding pairs decades ago, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The eagle was listed as threatened in 1967 under a federal law that preceded the 1973 Endangered Species Act and was listed as endangered — meaning at risk of extinction — in 1978.

Thanks to its federal protections under the law, the bald eagle’s population grew to more than 9,700 pairs by 2006 and was removed from the endangered list a year later.

Now, as the nation prepares to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act on Friday, conservative Republicans in Congress are saying the law — credited with saving the bald eagle and numerous other animal and plant species — is outdated, and they are taking steps to change it in ways that conservationists argue would drastically weaken it.

The changes likely would have an effect in New Mexico, home to dozens of protected species and several more still waiting to be listed. If the proposed changes pass, they could affect a decades-old controversial recovery program for the Mexican gray wolf that pits ranchers against wolf advocates.

In honor of the federal law’s anniversary, the Endangered Species Coalition has nominated 10 species it says have become imperiled by the Trump administration’s policies. Included on the list is the Western yellow-billed cuckoo, a bird with populations in New Mexico.

The coalition, composed of 400 conservation groups, says the nine bills introduced in the U.S. House to amend the Endangered Species Act — including one introduced by outgoing U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M. — would make it more difficult to list a species as endangered or designate critical habitat, and would ease the process of delisting species, which would end or reduce their federal protections.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, under President Donald Trump, also is seeking changes to how the law is implemented.

Largely at issue, said Hailey Hawkins, the Southern Rockies field representative for the Endangered Species Coalition, is the bottom line.

“Economic analysis would be allowed under these new regulations,” Hawkins said.

Under the regulations proposed by the Trump administration, the interior secretary would designate critical habitat for a species based on scientific data “after considering the economic impact,” and the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would be charged with weighing “the economic and other benefits of exclusion against any benefits of inclusion.”

That would be a major shift from the current rules.

When President Richard Nixon signed the endangered species bill into law, he said, “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.”

The regulatory changes drew more than 800,000 public comments decrying them when they were announced last summer, according to conservation advocacy organizations.

The Endangered Species Coalition is mustering more opposition to the proposal ahead of a decision on whether the changes will move forward. The group cites a 2015 Tulchin Research poll in which 90 percent of American voters surveyed said they support the Endangered Species Act, while 7 percent said they opposed it and 3 percent weren’t certain of their position.

“The Endangered Species Act has been and continues to be successful in recovering species and preventing them from going extinct, said Jason Rylander, senior counsel for Washington, D.C.-based Defenders of Wildlife. “Our view is this act could work better if the Fish and Wildlife Service had more resources to address the growing number of species that need protection.”

Several industry organizations, including the American Farm Bureau, support the proposed changes.

“When I think of government regulations that are not only broken down but also hurting America’s farms and ranches, the Endangered Species Act is at the top of my list,” Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall wrote on the organization’s website.

In an email, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman called the changes a “modernization.”

“The proposed changes to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s regulations will ensure our actions are clear and consistent, and provide the maximum degree of regulatory predictability to those who are affected by the act,” the statement said.

The next step for the regulatory changes is a review by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.

Under the bills making their way through the House, federal agencies would coordinate more closely with state and local governments on species protections and recovery programs.

Asked to comment on possible changes to the Endangered Species Act, Tristanna Bickford, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, said, “We all want to work together to recover species across New Mexico.”

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