Judge Restores Endangered Species Act Protections

Trump-era changes considered the economic impact of saving struggling species.

Portrait of grey wolf
Straublund Photography / Getty Images

A federal judge in California tossed out Trump-era changes to the Endangered Species Act that had removed protections for hundreds of endangered species.

United States District Judge Jon S. Tigar vacated a series of regulations enacted in August 2019 that limited protections and allowed officials to consider economic costs when making decisions about saving a struggling species.

The court ruling is in response to a lawsuit filed in 2019 by Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, on behalf of seven environmental and animal rights groups. The groups said that the changes threatened to overturn years of protections for species and habitats that were critical for their survival.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed in 1973 to preserve and protect threatened and endangered species and their habitats.

“This decision is a huge win for wildlife because it eliminates several needless and illegal barriers that made it more difficult for imperiled species—especially those threatened by the long-term effects of climate change, like wolverines—to receive comprehensive ESA protections,” Nicholas Arrivo, managing attorney at the Humane Society of the United States, tells Treehugger.

“We hope to see the Administration act quickly to address our ongoing biodiversity crisis by protecting more species and rescinding the remaining regulatory rollbacks that were not covered by our lawsuit.”

Changing the Rules

Before this recent decision, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service had filed a voluntary remand motion in response to the lawsuit in order to partially rewrite some ESA regulations but asked the rules stay in place during the process. That could take years to complete.

The court chose to vacate the newer 2019 regulations instead.

In his ruling, Tigar wrote that neither of the two services has “evinced any desire to keep the 2019 ESA Rules intact.” Instead, the USFWS has announced its intention to rescind those rules.

Reinstating Protections

Earthjustice had filed the original lawsuit on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, Wild Earth Guardians, and the Humane Society of the United States.

“The Court spoke for species desperately in need of comprehensive federal protections without compromise,” Kristen Boyles, attorney at Earthjustice, said in a statement. “Threatened and endangered species do not have the luxury of waiting under rules that do not protect them.”

One of the 2019 changes included lifting the “blanket rule,” which are additional protections for species newly classified as threatened. The USFWS says it intends to reinstate those protections.

Under the Trump administration, species like the Northern spotted owl and gray wolves lost protections.

When the changes were made in 2019, federal officials claimed the revisions would be more efficient while helping species recover.

“The best way to uphold the Endangered Species Act is to do everything we can to ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal—recovery of our rarest species. The Act’s effectiveness rests on clear, consistent and efficient implementation,” said then-U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt.

“An effectively administered Act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation.”

Environmental and animal rights groups disagree.

“The Trump Administration’s assault on the nation’s most important wildlife protection law made no sense at the time—and even less now as we see a biodiversity crisis unfolding globally with more clarity each day,” said Rebecca Riley, managing director of the nature program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a non-profit international environmental advocacy group.

“The court’s decision ensures that the previous Administration’s ‘extinction package’ will be rolled back so that the ESA can do its job: preventing the extinction of vulnerable species.”