On Friday the Department of the Interior quietly issued a new interpretation of the Endangered Species Act on its website. In it the DOI essentially redefines what is an “endangered species,” quibbling with the meaning of terms such as “significant” and “portion” and “range,” which, in the original act, mandated that an “endangered species” is “any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”
Under the new opinion, an animal will no longer be classified as “endangered” if a population thrives in any part of the nation. For example, the gray wolf would be delisted in Montana and Idaho where it survives in stable populations, but remain “endangered” in Wyoming. (Never mind that Montana and Wyoming and Idaho are all neighbors and their gray wolf populations don’t pay attention to borders.)
Because of this new definition of “endangered,” the Center for Biological Diversity estimates that 80% of current species on the federal endangered and threatened lists may be dropped, along with the protection the list provides them. (The CBD found that 77% of the 108 species that have gone extinct since the Endangered Species Act was enacted did so during the lengthy listing process.)
The opinion also makes no provisions for animals who have been driven out of prior habitats. “It’s just so clearly illogical and anti-wildlife that I can’t wait to get this before a federal judge,” said Kieran Suckling, policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “They are rewarding industry for driving populations extinct. Because as soon as you drive a population extinct (in a certain area) it is no longer on the table. It no longer counts toward whether a species is endangered.”
The opinion reasoned that:
“The phrase ‘in danger’ denotes a present-tense condition of being at risk of a future, undesired event. Hence, to say a species ‘is in danger’ in an area where it no longer exists–i.e. in its historical range–would be inconsistent with common usage …. the Secretary must consider the ‘present’ or ‘threatened’ (i.e. future), rather than the past ‘destruction, modification, or curtailment’ of a species’ habitat or range.”
Unfortunately, the DOI’s opinion may stick. As a previous case dictated, if a word like “endangered” is ambiguous, the federal court must accept the department’s definition, “even if the agency’s reading differs from what the court believes is the best statutory interpretation.” “This policy will do more to promote the purposeful killing of imperiled species than anything else this administration has ever done,” said Suckling.
Possibly Suckling hasn’t seen the even more questionable Endangered Species Reform Act of 2007, introduced to the Senate last month, that would require lengthy research, numerous reports, petitions, and government confirmation of all that information before a rapidly-disappearing species could even be listed as “endangered” in the first place.