POLITICS
08/21/2019 14:37 EDT | Updated 08/21/2019 16:38 EDT

Trump Slapped With First Lawsuit After Endangered Species Act Rollback

The new rules are a “breathtaking" and “illegal” attack on the bedrock conservation law, an Earthjustice attorney said.

Eight environmental groups on Wednesday filed what will likely be the first of many lawsuits to block the Trump administration’s sweeping overhaul of the Endangered Species Act

The 37-page complaint, filed by Earthjustice in the U.S District Court of Northern California, comes just over a week after the Interior Department finalized new rules that significantly weaken the 1973 law, arguably America’s most important tool for protecting imperiled plants and animals. 

The ESA rule changes make it easier for federal agencies to remove species from the protected list, allow for economic impacts to be considered when making decisions about granting species protection, and limit agencies’ ability to account for the impacts of future climate change. They also diminish protections for future threatened species and revise how agencies go about designating habitat as critical to species’ long-term survival.

The rollback comes amid a human-caused biodiversity crisis that has pushed up to 1 million species around the globe to the brink of extinction

The lawsuit argues that the Trump administration violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to analyze the impact of its revisions and that the final rules include changes that weren’t in the initial proposal and that the public never had a chance to weigh in on. 

“NEPA requires federal agencies to look before they leap,” Drew Caputo, the vice president of litigation for lands, wildlife and oceans at Earthjustice, told HuffPost. “They just leapt.”

“The revised regulations violate the plain language and overarching purpose of the ESA” the complaint reads.

Earthjustice is representing seven other environmental groups in the lawsuit, including Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The same group of plaintiffs has also filed a notice of intent to sue over other aspects of the overhaul.

In an emailed statement, Interior spokesman Nick Goodwin said “it is unsurprising that those who repeatedly seek to weaponize the Endangered Species Act ― instead of use it as a means to recover imperiled species ― would choose to sue.”

“We will see them in court, and we will be steadfast in our implementation of this important act with the unchanging goal of conserving and recovering species,” he said. 

Carlos Barria / Reuters
President Donald Trump listens to U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt speak during an event touting the administration’s environmental policy in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., July 8, 2019.

The administration has painted the overhaul as an honest attempt to “modernize” and “improve” implementation of the law, saying the changes will lift regulatory burdens on business while continuing to safeguard species. But Republicans have for decades been trying to chip away at the law, arguing it has been abused to block economic development. And hatred for the ESA is common inside Trump’s Interior Department. Several agency officials have histories of slamming the law, calling it “a sword to tear down the American economy,” likening species listings to “incoming Scud missiles” and voicing support for repealing the law entirely. 

“The previous regulations utilized by the Department of the Interior often took a one-size-fits-all approach to species protections, making species population recovery more difficult,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former fossil fuel lobbyist with a history of fighting the act, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross wrote in a CNN op-ed defending their decision. 

Caputo called the rollbacks a “breathtaking,” “comprehensive” and “illegal” attack on species protections. The ultimate goal, he said, is clear: to boost oil and gas drilling, mining, logging and other development.

“There is nothing in their proposal that helps endangered species,” he told HuffPost. “Everything in it is harmful. And that shouldn’t be a surprise because the crowd here ― the Trump administration officials who made this decision ― these are all industry players and advocates.” 

Trump and his team are likely to face additional legal challenges. Hours after the new rules were unveiled, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra vowed to fight them rules in court.

“The proposed rollbacks are putting species and their habitat at substantially greater risk of extinction, and they are doing so to boost the profits of companies that are putting those species at risk in the first place,” Becerra said during a call with reporters last week. “We are ready to preserve this important law. The species with whom we share this planet deserve nothing less. And our children deserve nothing less.” 

The ESA is a wildly popular and successful law. It was passed with strong bipartisan support in 1973 and has succeeded in preventing 99% of listed species from going extinct, including the Yellowstone grizzly bear, bald eagle and black-footed ferret. Today, it protects more than 1,600 plants and animals, as well as the habitats critical to their survival.

This story has been updated with a response from the Interior Department.