Judge dismisses Trump-era rollbacks on endangered species

A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a host of Trump administration actions to roll back protections for endangered or threatened species, a year after the Biden administration said it was preparing to strengthen protections of these species.

U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar in Northern California has eliminated Trump-era rules even as two wildlife agencies under President Joe Biden revise or roll back regulations. The decision restores a range of protections under the Endangered Species Act – some of which date back to the 1970s – while reviews are completed. Environmental groups hailed the decision, which they say has accelerated needed protections and critical habitat designations for endangered species, including salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

Tigar’s decision “speaks for species that desperately need comprehensive federal protections without compromise,” said Kristen Boyles, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice. “Threatened and endangered species don’t have the luxury of waiting under rules that don’t protect them.”

The court’s decision comes as two federal agencies – the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service – are reviewing five Endangered Species Act regulations finalized by President Donald Trump’s administrationincluding critical habitat designations and rules requiring federal agencies to consult with wildlife or fisheries departments before taking actions that could affect threatened or endangered species.

Fish and Wildlife also said it would reinstate the decades-old “general rule” that mandates additional protections for species newly listed as endangered. These protections were removed under Trump.

Critical habitat designations for threatened or endangered species can lead to limits on energy development, such as mining or oil drilling, that could disturb a vulnerable species, while the consultation rule and a separate rule on the scope of proposed federal measures help determine how far the government can go to protect species at risk.

Under Trump, officials rolled back protections for the northern spotted owl, gray wolves and other species, actions Biden has pledged to review. The Biden administration previously moved to reverse Trump’s decision to weaken enforcement of the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty law, which made it harder to prosecute bird deaths caused by the energy industry.

Northern spotted owl in an old growth forest managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

William F. Campbell, LIFE via Getty Images

Reversing the Bird Act was among more than 150 pro-business actions on the environment Trump has taken, and Biden wants to reconsider, revise or remove, including last month’s withdrawal of a 2020 rule which limited the lands and waters that could be designated as places where animals and plants at risk could benefit from federal protection.

A spokesperson for the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, said Tuesday the agency is reviewing the court’s decision.

Fish and Wildlife, along with the Marine Fisheries Service, announced in June 2021 that they were reviewing Trump-era actions on endangered species. Reviews could take months or years, officials said.

Industry groups and Republicans in Congress have long viewed the Endangered Species Act as an obstacle to economic development, and under Trump they have successfully lobbied to weaken the law’s regulations. Environmental groups and Democratic-controlled states have fought the moves in court, but many of those cases have gone unresolved.

Ryan Shannon, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, another environmental group, said he was “incredibly relieved” that the “terrible” Trump-era rules on endangered species were thrown out by the Tigar-based Oakland, Calif., who was appointed to the federal bench by former President Barack Obama.

“I hope the Biden administration will take this opportunity to strengthen this crucial law, rather than weaken it, in the face of the ongoing extinction crisis,” Shannon said Tuesday.

Rebecca Riley of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the court’s decision “ensures that the previous administration’s ‘extinguishment package’ will be undone.”

She and other advocates have called on the Biden administration to ensure that the Endangered Species Act “can do its job: prevent vulnerable species from becoming extinct.”

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