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KANW is a member of the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration of public media stations that serves the Western states of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Our mission is to tell stories about the people, places and issues across the Mountain West.From land and water management to growth in the expanding West to our unique culture and heritage, we'll explore the issues that define us and the challenges we face.

Minor changes to the Endangered Species Act cause major political friction

A brown and black wolverine shows off his big old teeth in front of a green background.
Barney Moss
/
Flickr Creative Commons
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently listed the wolverine as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.

The Biden administration is restoring protections for threatened wildlife that had been previously dropped during the Trump presidency. The changes are minor, but they’ve sparked fierce debate about the purpose and function of the Endangered Species Act.

The changes will reinstate a decades-old so-called blanket rule that protects species newly classified as “threatened,” among other technical alterations. It also requires officials to not consider economic impacts – including for energy or job development – during Endangered Species Act listing decisions.

The blanket protections and economic language were altered in 2019 by the Trump administration in an effort to appeal to industries like agriculture and energy. Federal officials say the new rules are responding to the urgent needs plants and animals are facing amidst climate change. Currently, the Endangered Species Act protects more than 1,600 species across the country.

“The Endangered Species Act is more important than ever to conserve and recover imperiled species now and for generations to come,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams said in a statement. “These revisions underscore our commitment to using all of the tools available to help halt declines and stabilize populations of the species most at-risk.”

Dr. Lowell Baier, an environmental attorney and historian for several decades, said the updates will result in very few shifts to how federal officials actually manage threatened and endangered plants and animals. But he lamented the political discourse that has already surfaced over the past week.

“When you really analyze them and look at them carefully, it's all smoke and mirrors,” he said. “As partisanship has become the standard here in Washington, each administration just plays tennis with the Endangered Species Act, unfortunately.”

For environmental groups, the new rules don’t go far enough to preserve U.S. species from extinction. A press release from the Center for Biological Diversity called them “weak.”

Conservative politicians, meanwhile, criticized the changes as harmful to the nation’s economy. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said the rules will “wreak havoc across the West.”

“Beyond giving D.C. bureaucrats the power to infringe on property rights and shut down good paying jobs, the reforms reject common sense in favor of big government regulations,” Lummis said in a statement. “These rules will not change the fact that less than 2% of species listed are recovered, but they will cost Wyoming and the West dearly.”

For Baier, this debate – and likely legal challenges – distracts federal officials from doing their jobs and erodes the trust and integrity of the Endangered Species Act. Currently, dozens of bills seek to weaken the 50-year-old law.

“This is not a red or blue issue,” Baier said. “We don't want any changes. It's fine as it is. All it needs is funding.”

Baier has written several books about the past, present and future of the Endangered Species Act, and has recently released a shorter book, Earth’s Emergency Room, about the historic highs and lows of the law.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.