There's no doubt the American alligator is alive today thanks to the Endangered Species Act. Sixty years ago, Florida's gators were on the brink of extinction due to market hunting and habitat loss, but federal protections that safeguarded its wetland habitat and prohibited hunting allowed the state reptile to recover.
Last week, the Trump administration severely weakened the Endangered Species Act (ESA) through a series of changes that included erasing climate change as a threat to wildlife and removing protections from threatened species. In response, a group of environmental and animal protection organizations has filed a lawsuit arguing the amendments violate the law.
"This lawsuit is about defending the Endangered Species Act," says Rebecca Riley, legal director for the nature program at the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC). "The ESA is the last line of defense for vulnerable species and making sure it is as strong as possible is important."
The NRDC is one of the organizations suing the Trump administration. Additional plaintiffs include the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association, WildEarth Guardians, and Humane Society of the United States. The defendants named in the lawsuit include Trump's secretary of the interior, the former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt; and secretary of commerce, the gas and oil investor Wilbur Ross.
"If you look at the changes as a whole, it's clear whose interests Trump is serving," Riley says. "He's selling out endangered species for the benefit of polluters."
The lawsuit rests on three claims, although Riley says more will likely be added as the case moves forward. The first is that the Trump administration failed to follow a law that requires the federal government to analyze the environmental impact of its decision. The Trump administration argued the changes to the ESA were too broad to analyze, but environmental organizations are calling its bluff on that reasoning.
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"We think that's wrong," Riley says. "The effects are quite obvious — fewer protections for species and fewer protections for ecosystems."
The Trump administration also failed to comply with a law that requires public participation if a law change is significant. Although there was a notice and public comment period last year regarding the proposed edits to the ESA, the final changes included alterations that were not made available to the public. For example, the final rule added more requirements for declaring a portion of land as critical habitat.
The third claim is where Riley says the rubber hits the road for species. The ESA requires federal agencies to evaluate actions that will jeopardize a species or adversely modify their habitat. Previously, that law required developers to sign a legally binding agreement that assured they would not put any species at risk. The new law requires only a promise that no species will be at risk, and potentially an empty promise at that. It effectively gives the benefit of the doubt to polluters and developers instead of to threatened and endangered species.
"You can see how catastrophic that would be for species," Riley says. "If we don't have assurances that developers will mitigate their impact, we may see many more species go extinct."