Endangered species in the United States are facing a newly powerful enemy: a Republican Congressional majority backed by a Trump administration and a likely right-leaning Supreme Court.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA)—dubbed "America’s foremost tool for protecting biodiversity" by the Center for Biological Diversity—has for decades been the target of right-wing Republicans. In 2015 alone, the Republican-dominated Congress launched an unprecedented 130 legislative assaults (pdf) on the law, including bills intended to undermine the ESA and legislative amendments that would greatly weaken the law's protections.
One Republican congressman, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, has now set his sights on completely dismantling the pivotal 1973 law. Josh Zaffos reports for High Country News that after backing bills to weaken the ESA for years, earlier this month Bishop "went even further and told E&E News the ESA is so dysfunctional that lawmakers may 'simply have to start over again,' and 'repeal it and replace it.'"
"That might mean giving state wildlife management agencies primary responsibility for species conservation," explains High Country News. "Protections could vary widely, and since states get their funds from hunting licenses and fees, they might be tempted to prioritize game management over at-risk species."
The consequences would be dire. As conservation group Earthjustice explains in its Citizens' Guide to the Endangered Species Act (pdf), "[t]he protection afforded by the ESA currently extends to over 1,250 species, and most of them have completely recovered, partly recovered, had their habitat protected, or had their populations stabilized or increased as a result."
The guide continues: "As important, millions of acres of forest, beaches, and wetlands—those species' essential habitats—have been protected from degradation and development."
Indeed, it is because of a perceived threat to economic development that conservatives have targeted the ESA. Many of the political careers of those most hostile toward the law, such as the Republicans on the House Resources Committee, are funded by large donations from environmentally destructive industries.
Dan Rohlf, a professor at Lewis and Clark Law School, commented to Zaffos that "[a]ny Congressional action that would weaken the Endangered Species Act at all would be pretty dramatic. What Rep. Bishop is talking about would be a major decision in the environmental history of this country."
"Because it preserves plants, and animals, and the ecosystems they depend on," Earthjustice notes, "the ESA is perhaps the most powerful and most significant environmental legislation ever passed in the United States."
In fact, the Center for Biological Diversity observes that "[w]ere it not for the Act, scientists estimate, at least 227 species would have likely gone extinct since the law's passage."
And so with a right-wing federal government looming, environmentalists are bracing for a battle with high stakes—and frightening odds.