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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Trump administration’s changes to Endangered Species Act give weight to economic factors

A Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit hides under sagebrush in a natural enclosure in the Beezley Hills near Ephrata in the this photo from 2015. A state-federal project is restoring the threatened species to range in Central Washington. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)

The Trump administration made changes to the Endangered Species Act on Monday which would allow the government to take economic factors into the decision of listing a species as threatened or endangered.

Kim Thorburn, state Fish and Wildlife commissioner, said the decision could have dire consequences, though she noted species listed by the state would continue to be protected.

“It reflects as much the ethics of how the government is being run where this administration puts very little value in natural resources and much more value in resource extraction and use for humans,” Thorburn said.

Mike Scott, University of Idaho Fish and Wildlife Sciences distinguished professor emeritus, said the economic factor with the Endangered Species Act was first tested when the snail darter delayed the construction of the Telico Dam in Tennessee. Scott is the lead author of “Shepherding Nature: The challenges of conserving conservation-reliant species,” which will be published by Cambridge University Press in April 2020.

“The legal ruling was that the snail took precedent over the dam,” Scott said. “That’s an important concept. In other words, endangered species often conflict with development and when they do the rule goes in favor of the species, that would change. As a consequence, there will be fewer species listed.”

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt argued the changes will make the Endangered Species Act more effective.

“The best way to uphold the Endangered Species Act is to do everything we can to ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal – recovery of our rarest species,” Bernhardt said in a press release. “The Act’s effectiveness rests on clear, consistent and efficient implementation. An effectively administered Act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation.”

Scott said the best way to make the Endangered Species Act more effective is through funding.

“The majority of endangered species are underfunded, and as a consequence they’re not meeting their recovery goals,” Scott said. “That’s the biggest hurdle to achieving recovery goals, money.”

Another big change is in factoring in climate change in a species’ trajectory.

“They’re going to tighten up the definition of foreseeable future, and make it something that can be predicted and has a known probability of being a threat to the species in a relatively short period of time,” Scott said. “The consequences of climate change frequently play out over decades, so climate change will be factored in fewer times with this ruling than it would be in the current conditions.”

Thorburn said while the federal government could not take financial factors into listing decisions in the past, in practice this was already done. A good example, she said, is sage grouse.

“Sage grouse had been in decline across the range for years and years, and their numbers are at an all-time low,” Thorburn said. “Their conservation depends on preserving their habitat. They don’t do well with any human disturbance of their habitat, but that isn’t economically viable in today’s world, their habitat has lots of human uses that we’re not going to give up.”

The rules go into effect 30 days after being published in the Federal Register. The rules would affect listing decisions in the future but are not retroactive, officials said..