The Biden administration is scrapping the definition of “habitat” for endangered animals, returning to an understanding that existed before the administration of President Donald J. Trump shrank the areas that could be protected for endangered animals.
By removing a single sentence from the regulations, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries could once again protect a “critical habitat” even if it has become unsuitable due to development or other changes, but could be restored.
The Trump administration has narrowed the definition of “habitat,” limiting federal protections to locations that can sustain an endangered species, as opposed to a broader, historical habitat where the animal may someday live or may inhabit.
But the Trump administration’s rule conflicted with the protective purposes of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, wildlife officials say.
“For some species that are threatened with extinction due to habitat loss or climate change and there is literally not much habitat left, we need every tool in the toolbox to be able to protect the remaining habitats that might be suitable,” said Bridget Fahey, Director of Conservation and Classification at the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Biden administration’s environmental agenda
President Biden is pushing for tougher regulations but faces a narrow path to reaching his goals in the fight against global warming.
Critical habitat designation does not restrict activity on private land unless with federal approval or funding; Federal agencies must ensure that any actions they fund, permit, or implement do not destroy or adversely alter such habitats.
The move comes amid a deepening biodiversity crisis, with an estimated one million plant and animal species threatened with extinction around the world. A major cause is habitat loss as humans convert wild areas into farms, cities, and communities. Pollution and climate change are making the problem worse.
The change by the Biden administration is the first of several expected reversals of Trump-era rules governing the Endangered Species Act. Officials expect to lift a second rule next month, also related to habitat needs. And in early June, they proposed a new rule that would strengthen species conservation in a changing climate by allowing regulators to introduce experimental populations of animals outside of their historical ranges.
But a separate, sweeping set of Trump-era changes to the application of the Endangered Species Act made in 2019 remain in place, with plans for them unclear, environmentalists say. These rules allow regulators to consider economic factors when making conservation decisions; facilitate the removal of animals and plants from the endangered persons list; Easing protection for species newly classified as “Vulnerable”, which is the level below “Vulnerable”; and make it difficult to take into account the effects of climate change when protecting endangered species.
These changes have been welcomed by industry groups including tThe National Association of Home Builders, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Western Energy Alliance welcomed the regulatory relief.
However, conservation groups challenged that rulebook in court in 2019, a case that is still pending.
“These damaging rules have been in place for nearly three years and the Biden administration is still inactive,” said Kristen Boyles, attorney for Earthjustice, the nonprofit environmental rights group that filed the lawsuit on behalf of a number of environmental organizations. “And of course the authorities use them because they have to apply the regulations in place,” she said, referring to government groups like the Fish and Wildlife Service.
A year ago, officials in the Biden administration announced their intention to reconsider the changes. Now they are waiting for the court ruling on the 2019 regulations.
“Rather than proposing a rule that might then need further revision based on a court decision, we felt it best to await the court’s testimony before taking any further action,” said Angela Somma, NOAA director of endangered species Office of Protected Resources.