EDITORIAL: Endangered Species Act itself endangered

York Dispatch Editorial Board

Leave it to President Donald Trump to water down the very law credited with saving the American Bald Eagle from extinction.

The newest front in the administration’s war against the environment is an assault on the Endangered Species Act. The Department of Interior last week announced changes to the way the law is enforced, significantly weakening the 46-year-old landmark conservation measure.

Specifically, the changes would make it easier to remove a species from the endangered list. They would also loosen protections against the class known as threatened species — those not formally designated as endangered but still in grave peril.

Who would want to do away with key provisions in what has been a wildly successful and publicly popular measure? Trump’s friends in the mining and oil- and gas-drilling industries, of course. The new measures require regulators to factor in economic considerations when deciding whether to maintain a species’ protected status. You know, economic considerations like whether an energy company would lose potential profits by not drilling in a protected species’ habitat.

Congressional Republicans have long painted the Endangered Species Act as overly regulatory and burdensome to industry. But overhauling it was among the many initiatives they failed to accomplish despite holding both houses of Congress the first two years Trump was in the White House.

A mature bald eagle glides over Central York's softball field while the Panthers host the Northeastern Bobcats, Tuesday, April 17, 2018. John A. Pavoncello

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What the GOP ignores in its single-minded focus on deregulation and corporate profits is all the good the act has done since it was signed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon. Scientists say more than 200 species have been saved thanks to the legislation. Examples include not only the bald eagle but the American alligator, the gray whale, the peregrine falcon, the Columbian White-tailed Deer and the grizzly bear.

Important ecosystems and plant life have likewise been spared or secured.

This disappointing step backwards couldn’t come at a worse time. As the latest report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes clear, “human-caused climate change is dramatically degrading the Earth’s land.” And a previous report in May warned that more than 1 million plants and animals worldwide face extinction due in large part to human development and climate change.

It is already too late to prevent the impacts of catastrophic climate change, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be mitigated.

Of course, that would require the type of global cooperation that led to the 2015 Paris Agreement — the landmark UN framework from which Trump thick-headedly withdrew the United States.

In fact, rather than taking steps to slow the effects of climate change, the president seems hellbent on doing everything within his power to propel them. From rolling back Obama-era fuel-economy standards to loosening offshore-drilling rules to nominating individuals hostile to the mission of protecting the environment to run agencies charged with doing so — Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, for one — Trump has been a one-man environmental wrecking crew.

Add the attack on the Endangered Species Act to the hit list. Indeed, as the New York Times reported, “Among the most controversial changes are the limitations on the ability of regulators to take climate change into consideration when making listing assessments.”

Fortunately, a number of conservation groups and several states are planning to challenge the changes in court. That should at least delay the new rules, which were set to take place next month.

Ultimately, these revisions should be not just delayed but derailed. And the administration’s relentless march backwards on environmental protections and conservation in the service of industry profits must be halted. Failure to do so will, ironically, endanger the very species the Endangered Species Act was established to protect.