WASHINGTON — The Biden administration announced plans on Friday to reverse policies implemented under former president Donald Trump that weakened the Endangered Species Act, a half-century-old law credited with the recovery of the bald eagle, humpback whale, grizzly bear, and dozens of other species
The US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service are both moving to undo much of the Trump administration’s work altering the ways habitats of plants and animals on the verge of extinction are kept from total collapse.
The decision to bolster the federal government’s power to protect vanishing plants and animals comes as the world finds itself in the midst of what United Nations scientists say is a worldwide decline in biodiversity that threatens to erode food systems and other key parts of the global economy.
Martha Williams, principal deputy director at the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement her agency will work with both industry and Native American tribes “to not only protect and recover America’s imperiled wildlife but to ensure cornerstone laws like the Endangered Species Act are helping us meet 21st century challenges.”
Led by former Interior secretary David Bernhardt, an expert on the Endangered Species Act, the Trump administration whittled down several long-standing protections for imperiled plants and animals that the Biden administration now intends to revise or outright rescind.
For example, the previous administration allowed wildlife officials to take the economic cost of conserving species into account when deciding whether to put a plant or animal on the endangered species list — a move many environmentalists claimed violated both the letter and spirit of the law.
Trump officials also made it easier to remove protections for threatened species, such as the American burying beetle, which once scurried nearly everywhere east of the Rockies but now lives in only a few parts of the country and is further threatened by climate change. Under Trump, the Fish and Wildlife Service weakened protections for the beetle at the behest of oil and gas drillers who must work around the imperiled insect.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service say they will reverse those rules.
David Henkin, a senior attorney at Earthjustice, which sued the Trump administration over the changes, said the Biden administration’s announcement is “excellent news for critically endangered species.”
“As long as they do it quickly,” he added, “we can avoid bad on-the-ground consequences.”
Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, called the announcement “a good start,” urging the Biden administration to update the regulation in a way that safeguards species threatened by rising temperatures.
“With climate change bearing down on us and no serious doubt remaining about the consequences of inaction, we should take this opportunity to update all federal standards as thoroughly as possible to prevent habitat destruction and biodiversity loss before it’s too late,” he said in a statement.
Historically hailed as a success by the World Wildlife Fund and other conservation groups, the Endangered Species Act has helped keep the vast majority — 99 percent — of protected wildlife from extinction.
Yet many supposedly protected species are still far from thriving. A new study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution this week, for instance, finds that something isn’t right with the North Atlantic right whale.
Although the animal is listed as endangered and protected from harvest, it’s still impacted by deadly contact with humans through boat strikes and becoming entangled in fishing nets. Not all those incidents are lethal, but, according to research published in Current Biology, it has led to a startling finding. Right whales are getting smaller.
“We find that entanglements in fishing gear are associated with shorter whales, and that body lengths have been decreasing since 1981,” the study says. “Arrested growth may lead to reduced reproductive success and increased probability of lethal gear entanglements.”
The researchers used aerial photogrammetry data dating back to the early 2000s to measure whales observed for the study, taking 202 measurements of 129 individuals. Based on the findings, the authors determined that a whale born in 2019 is expected to reach a maximum length that’s one meter shorter than a whale born in 1981, a 7 percent decline.
To further protect some of the hundreds of thousands plants and animals near extinction, Biden campaigned on a plan to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s land and waters by the end of the decade.
So far, though, his administration has offered few details on how it will achieve that ambitious goal, in addition to weathering criticism from Republican lawmakers who call the plan an example of government overreach.