TRAVERSE CITY, Michigan (AP) – The Biden administration on Thursday withdrew a rule adopted by former President Donald Trump that limited which lands and waters could be designated as places where endangered animals and plants could receive federal protection.
A definition of “habitat” published in December 2020, shortly before Trump left office, restricted areas that the administration could identify as critical for specific wildlife. Environmental advocates said the move would put more species on the path to extinction, while advocates said it would guarantee private property rights.
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In rescinding the rule, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service said it could undermine their mission to make critical science-based habitat decisions.
“The growing extinction crisis highlights the importance of the Endangered Species Act and efforts to conserve species before declines become irreversible,” said Shannon Estenoz, assistant interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.
The rule was one of several steps the Trump administration has taken to reduce or change endangered species policies, including lifting blanket protections for animals newly listed as endangered and establishing cost estimates to save species. Biden ordered a review of his predecessor’s environmental rules shortly after taking office.
Under the 1973 law, federal agencies cannot fund, permit, or take measures that destroy or severely damage critical habitats. It does not restrict activities on private land unless government approval or financial support is involved.
The Trump rule’s definition of habitat was “uncertain, confusing and inconsistent with the conservation purposes” of the law, the Fish and Wildlife Service and Marine Fisheries Service said in a joint statement.
This has prevented agencies from selecting areas that currently do not meet a species’ needs but may in the future as a result of restoration work or natural changes, the statement said. Global warming is expected to alter many landscapes and waters, attracting species that migrate from places that are no longer suitable for them.
Habitat degradation and loss is the main reason animals and plants become threatened, the agencies said, adding that they must be able to designate critical spaces “in a way that protects the habitats of listed species and supports their recovery.”
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Environmental groups applauded the reversal of the rule, which comes as scientists warn of a decline in global biodiversity. A 2019 United Nations report said around 1 million plants and animals are in danger of extinction, with species loss accelerating tens or hundreds of times faster than before.
“This is welcome news, but there is still more work to be done to strengthen the (Endangered Species Act) so that endangered wildlife has every chance to survive and thrive,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife.
Jonathan Wood, vice president of law and policy at the Property and Environment Research Center, a group calling itself “free market environmentalism,” said rescinding the rule would discourage private conservation efforts.
“Critical habitat designations penalize landowners who conserve or restore habitat and are therefore useless in areas that require substantial restoration to sustain the species,” Wood said. “The agency should provide incentives for landowners to protect and restore habitat, not alienating potential conservation partners.”
He represented forest landowners in a lawsuit that led to a 2018 Supreme Court decision that prompted the Trump administration to draft its definition of habitat.
The case involved the highly endangered gopher frog, which survives in just a few Mississippi ponds.
The Fish and Wildlife Service designated 1,500 acres (607 hectares) in neighboring Louisiana as critical habitat for the frog, although none lived there. Environmentalists said more space was essential for the frog, but the landowner, logging company Weyerhaeuser Co., called it unfair land grabbing.
The court ordered the government to decide what constitutes suitable habitat for the frog before designating areas as critical to save them.
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