The Trump administration will rewrite rules governing how to choose areas considered critical to endangered species to settle a lawsuit brought by 20 states and four trade groups, according to state attorneys general.
The endangered species director for an environmental nonprofit says that’s terrible news. Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity says the administration has “shown nothing but hostility toward endangered species.”
The attorneys general for Alabama and Louisiana said in news releases Thursday that the administration made the agreement Thursday to settle a lawsuit brought by 20 states and four national trade groups, challenging two changes made in 2016.
According to the lawsuit, the rules are now so vague that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service “could declare desert land as critical habitat for a fish and then prevent the construction of a highway through those desert lands, under the theory that it would prevent the future formation of a stream that might one day support the species.”
A spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife referred a request for comment to the U.S. Justice Department, which did not immediately respond to phoned and emailed queries. A NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman did not immediately respond Thursday.
“We are encouraged that the Trump administration has agreed to revisit these rules, which threaten property owners’ rights to use any land that the federal government could dream that an endangered species might ever inhabit,” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said in his news release. “These Obama-era rules were not only wildly unreasonable, but contrary to both the spirit and the letter of the Endangered Species Act.”
Greenwald said, “Their case didn’t have a leg to stand on.”
But, he said, “The Trump administration doesn’t want strong and needed protection for endangered species. It’s not surprising they would just roll over and agree to rewrite the rules.”
He said critical habitat doesn’t require landowners to do anything.
“It requires federal agencies to ensure that actions they take don’t adversely modify critical habitat,” Greenwald said. “So it’s only when the federal government is involved in a project — either through funding or through permitting — that there’s additional requirements.”
Critical habitat is at the center of a separate lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court agreed in January to review district and appeals court rulings that upheld Fish and Wildlife’s designation of 1,500 acres (607 hectares) of Louisiana timberland as critical habitat for the dusky gopher frog, an endangered frog found only in Mississippi.
The 3½-inch-long frogs once lived in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, but now live only in a few parts of Mississippi with temporary ponds that dry up in the summer, leaving them free of fish that might eat the frogs’ eggs. Adults come out of underground burrows in the winter and spring to breed in those ponds.
The Louisiana tract is the only land outside Mississippi that could be made suitable as a breeding ground, experts testified.
Greenwald said he doesn’t think new regulations would be approved in time to affect that suit. He says he doesn’t know of any other active suits involving critical habitat.