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The Final Frontier: When Nature is a Nuisance to Development

"In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches."

The Trump administration is trying to fully exploit a 2018 Supreme Court decision that vacated a lower court approval of the Obama administration’s plans to establish critical habitat for the highly endangered dusky gopher frog. (Photo: Suzanna L. Collins / Science Photo Library)

The Trump administration is trying to fully exploit a 2018 Supreme Court decision that vacated a lower court approval of the Obama administration’s plans to establish critical habitat for the highly endangered dusky gopher frog. (Photo: Suzanna L. Collins / Science Photo Library)

Star Trek always opened with the mission of the Enterprise: “Space, the Final Frontier...to boldly go where no man has gone before!” In the Trump administration, the mission seems to be: “Habitat, the final frontier...take boldly what little remains!” 

This is because the predatory voyages of a corrupted free enterprise have led President Trump and his cabinet to declare nature a nuisance to development and industry.  The latest example of this mission is a new rule jointly posted on August 5 in the Federal Register by the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The two agencies proposed new definitions of “habitat” under the Endangered Species Act that is essentially limited solely to where creatures are right now, not where they could be. Conservation groups have long argued that areas that could host endangered species should be preserved as much as possible, in a nation that loses 6,000 acres of open space every day to development. That argument today includes anticipating where species might migrate in adjusting to climate change.

But the Trump administration is trying to fully exploit a 2018 Supreme Court decision that vacated a lower court approval of the Obama administration’s plans to establish critical habitat for the highly endangered dusky gopher frog. The frog currently exists in only a few spots in Mississippi and the administration included 1,500 acres in Louisiana as “essential” conservation habitat. Paper titan Weyerhaeuser and private landowners, backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, home-builders, the factory farming industry and right-wing think tanks, convinced the Court to hold that an area could be critical habitat “only if it is habitat for the species.”

Such a narrow definition may work for Weyerhaeuser and industry, but it is potentially deadly for wildlife. In a related move, the Trump administration is also proposing to deny federal animal and plant species protection in cases where protection might get in the way of lucrative development.

That is why the Western Governors Association wrote a bipartisan letter to Fish and Wildlife and NOAA urging them to use state wildlife science data and analysis to avoid “unintended consequences for state management of species.”

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That is why 44 ocean advocacy organizations have signed a letter opposing the new rule because it has far-reaching implications for endangered species in our waters that are so highly migratory and so sensitive to environmental changes, any narrow definition of their habitat today will likely be meaningless tomorrow. Great examples are:

  • Northwest Atlantic Ocean Loggerhead Turtles, which need both suitable beach habitat for nesting and mats of sargassum seaweed in the open water to shelter hatchlings, two factors that are highly at the mercy of development and climate change;
  • North Atlantic right whales, of which there are only about 400 left in the world. They need a protective migratory corridor that can be adjusted for  climate change. In a desperate chase for food that is moving northward with warming waters,  whales are traveling  hundreds of miles north past Maine and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.Whales are being  killed in fishing gear entanglements or in collisions with vessels whose captains are not used to the whales’ presence.  
  • Atlantic salmon, which are undergoing reestablishment efforts in Maine rivers. They need both clean ocean water and forest rivers not degraded by development or forestry practices;
  • Western snowy plovers, which nest just above high tide. With sea-level rise due to  climate change, they need management that looks to where the high tide will be decades from now, not just today.

 And there are many other species of salmon, seals, shellfish and whales where narrow, current definitions of habitat will not suffice, because humans are so rapidly altering or destroying that habitat. The new rules by Fish and Wildlife and NOAA make this immensely worse for oceanic creatures, setting an impossibly high bar for designation of critical habitat for individual species at a time when the Trump administration continues to deny the existence of climate change and turn its back on the health of ocean ecosystems. In June, the president signed a proclamation to allow commercial fishing in the only national monument in the Atlantic Ocean, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts. The nearly 5,000-square-mile monument is home to beautiful corals thousands of years old and offers a rich banquet for whales and seabirds.

We don’t need narrow definitions and narrow-minded leadership on endangered species. We need to restore the intent of the Endangered Species Act. When President Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1973, he said, “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.”

If that is true, it also follows that nothing is more priceless than its habitat. Dr. Paul Ehrlich, the father of ecology, said, “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.”

Too many creatures are down to their last frontier. They need our policies to boldly go where the Act intended them—to preserve life for future civilizations.

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