How one of America’s landmark laws is being dismantled on the down low
by Robin Happel
Copy Editor and Manatee Enthusiast
If you’re a fan of bald eagles, whales, or Richard Nixon (like Brett Kavanaugh is!), then you’re probably already fairly familiar with the Endangered Species Act. Arguably one of the most influential bills of the past half-century, the ESA has brought numerous species back from the brink of non-existence since its signing in the early seventies. Although some of its clauses have always been controversial – such as, notably, red wolf reintroduction in North Carolina – the ESA itself has largely been accepted by both sides of the aisle, albeit grudgingly. Under Trump, however, this has begun to change. Also, since this is kind of a heavy topic for summer break, here are some wolf puppies learning how to howl:
Even in an administration famed for its antipathy to conservation, this summer so far has been dizzying. The drafting of the National Defense Authorization Act included several riders stripping species of ESA protections, as well as attempts to undercut portions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and protections for public lands. After significant opposition from Congressional Democrats – not to mention the white hot star power of the greater sage grouse – these riders in the defense bill were dropped. But a spending bill still moving forward contains up to a dozen more “poison pill” riders, hidden clauses that attempt to undermine the ESA.
According to the New York Times, perhaps as many as two dozen such provisions have been proposed in the past two weeks alone. Secretary Ryan Zinke is currently planning a covert overhaul of the ESA , potentially declawing the law for generations to come. (The public comment period on these revisions will be open for the rest of the summer, however, and outcry may at least slow them down.) Acting EPA administrator, Andrew “At Least He’s Not Scott Pruitt” Wheeler, is also potentially in the pocket of his former fossil fuel contacts, so – in a shocking twist that literally almost anyone could have predicted – he’s no friend to the Endangered Species Act either.
Even beyond the infamously beleaguered Bear Ears National Monument, however, more insidious changes are also taking place. From the plight of the prairie chicken to cancelling whale and sea turtle protections to legalizing killing red wolves and sea lions, many attacks on the ESA and similar laws are occurring on a species-by-species basis. Perhaps most egregiously, the administration even demoted manatees last year, following protests from fans of the innocent sea potatoes who, objectively speaking, deserved better. Just as a reminder of what we’re fighting for, here’s a manatee befriending a boat:
Although similar tactics have notably been tried and failed in previous years, many Republicans now sense a sea change, partly in their own party, but also more broadly. In past years, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other outlandish bills were often proposed, but seldom passed. As the Overton window moves to the right, however, what was once easily overturned is rapidly becoming law. From fast tracking Arctic drilling to possibly allowing fishing in marine monuments, environmental policy nowadays is in largely uncharted waters. (And many of those waters are now frankly disgusting, especially after the roll-back of coal ash regulations and the Stream Protection Rule – I won’t subject you to a full list, but every word in this sentence represents a separate one of over seventy recent Republican environmental roll-backs.)
In our increasingly chaotic news cycle, it’s easy to forget about wolves and sea otters. But arguably Trump’s environmental policies will be one of this administration’s most lasting legacies. Like leaving the Paris Treaty, proposals that encourage trophy hunting of elephants and other ESA-listed species will have ripple effects across the globe. Shifting momentum away from environmental causes encourages other countries to do the same, so it’s up to us to turn the tide, and speak up for species that don’t have a voice.
If you’re feeling powerless, consider joining a lobbying group like the League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, African Wildlife Foundation or others that work directly to protect endangered species. Planting milkweed costs almost nothing and means a lot to endangered monarchs and wild bees. Even something as simple as eating fewer foods with palm oil or being conscious of sea turtles when you go to the beach can have a huge impact. As cliché as it may sound, one person really can make a difference. Also, since it’s still summer, have some endangered baby sloths: