The Biden administration is throwing out the definition of “habitat” for endangered animals, returning to an understanding that existed before the government under President Donald J. Trump shrank the areas that could be protected for animals under threat of extinction.
By striking a single sentence from the regulations, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries could once again protect a “critical habitat” even if it had become unsuitable because of development or other changes but could be restored.
The Trump administration narrowed the definition of “habitat,” limiting federal protection to only places that can sustain an endangered species, as opposed to a more broad, historic habitat where the animal could someday live or dwell.
But the Trump administration’s rule was at odds with the conservation purposes of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, wildlife officials say.
“For some species that are on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss or climate change, and there’s literally not a lot of habitat left, we need every tool in the toolbox to be able to protect the remaining habitats that could be suitable,” said Bridget Fahey, division chief for conservation and classification at the Fish and Wildlife Service.
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A critical habitat designation does not restrict activity on private land unless it involves federal authorization or funding; federal agencies must ensure that any actions they fund, permit or conduct do not destroy or adversely modify such habitats.
The move comes amid an intensifying biodiversity crisis, with an estimated million plant and animal species around the world threatened with extinction. A main cause is habitat loss as people transform wild areas into farms, cities and towns. Pollution and climate change make the problem worse.
The change by the Biden administration is the first of several expected reversals of Trump-era rules that govern the Endangered Species Act. Officials expect to rescind a second rule, also related to habitat needs, next month. And earlier in June, they proposed a new rule that would strengthen protection of species in a changing climate by allowing regulators to introduce experimental populations of animals outside their historic ranges.
But a separate, sweeping set of Trump-era changes to how the Endangered Species Act is applied, made in 2019, remain in place with plans for them unclear, environmental advocates say. Those rules allow regulators to consider economic factors in decisions on species protection; make it easier to remove animals and plants from the endangered list; loosen protections for species newly listed as “threatened,” which is the level below endangered; and make it harder to consider the impacts of climate change when protecting species at risk.
Those changes were applauded by industry groups including the National Association of Home Builders, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Western Energy Alliance, which welcomed the regulatory relief.
But conservation groups filed a legal challenge to that set of rules in 2019, a case that is still pending.
“These harmful rules have been in place for almost three years and the Biden administration is still missing in action,” said Kristen Boyles, an attorney for Earthjustice, the nonprofit environmental law group that filed the suit on behalf of a slew of environmental organizations. “And the agencies are, of course, using them because they have to use the regulations that are in place,” she said, referring to government groups like the Fish and Wildlife Service.
A year ago, Biden administration officials announced their intention to reconsider the changes. Now they are waiting for the court ruling on the 2019 set of regulations.
“Rather than propose a rule that might then have to be further revised based on a court decision, we thought it best to wait for what the court says before we take further action,” said Angela Somma, chief of the endangered species division at NOAA’s Office of Protected Resources.