It’s never really a great day to be endangered, but for U.S. species, today is a better one than most. The Biden Administration issued a set of three policies on Wednesday that strengthen the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA). These proposed rules reverse a number of Trump-era changes that effectively gutted wildlife protections in 2019. With the Biden shifts many—though not all—of those destructive Trump alterations have been reverted back to their original state.
After the new rules go into effect, it will become more difficult to de-list species. Decisions to do so will have to be made “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination,” as was the case prior to Trump inserting financial considerations into the conservation law. Further, under the newly proposed Biden changes, threatened species will once again be granted the same protections as endangered ones. Beyond the reversals, revised language and definitions in the new regulations are intended to streamline the species listing process and to bolster requirements for federal agencies to consider federal protections.
Two of the proposals are interagency rules, stemming from Fish and Wildlife and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The final proposal is an FWS rule, alone.
“The Endangered Species Act is the nation’s foremost conservation law that prevents the extinction of species and supports their recovery,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams in a Fish and Wildlife press release. “These proposed revisions reaffirm our commitment to conserving America’s wildlife and ensuring the Endangered Species Act works for both species and people.”
Previously, the Biden administration took other steps to roll back Trump’s ESA roll-backs. About a year ago, the White House re-worked the Trump-era definition of “habitat.” With that 2022 change, the term once again came to mean anywhere a plant or animal could reasonably live—not just its present range. At the same time, Biden rescinded another Trump rule that made it more difficult to designate and protect species-critical land and water. With these new proposed changes, nearly all of the ESA policy damage done by Trump has been undone.
Yet, as conservation advocacy groups point out, some damage still remains. “This disappointing proposal fails to protect our nation’s endangered plants and animals. It restores pieces of the Endangered Species Act but keeps many of the disastrous Trump-era provisions in place,” Stephanie Kurose, an endangered species policy specialist at the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press statement.
Namely, the Biden admin seems to have kept in a loophole that allows regulators to consider the state of habitat “as a whole” before implementing protections—as opposed to assessing each portion of habitat individually. In practice, this means endangered species with theoretically wide ranges could be at risk of losing additional habitat to development and resource extraction because federal agencies could more easily approve such projects. Further, CBD points out that—under Biden’s changes—existing infrastructure projects and development remain included under the “environmental baseline,” despite any past or ongoing harm they might be responsible for.
Other activist groups agree that, while important, the Biden changes aren’t enough. “Restoring automatic protections for our nation’s threatened spices is a huge step in the right direction,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, in a press release. But “areas of concern exist within these new regulations,” Clark further noted.
Moreover, just getting back to this point has inexplicably taken President Biden more than two years, and the proposed rule changes aren’t yet in effect. First, there is a 60-day public comment period. It will likely be months before any policy is finalized. Before then, industry groups are likely to file lawsuits against the adjustments, claiming that such species protections stifle companies’ ability to make more and more money at the planet’s expense. If the executive branch falls to the GOP once again, another set of reversals can be expected.
Yet, even if Biden’s bolstered ESA remains intact, the policy tweaks don’t address one big concern about the act: The large majority of plants and animals placed on the list in the U.S. over the past 50 years have yet to recover. Only 54, out of thousands of species, have ever been de-listed because of significant rebounds.
Though 99% of listed species haven’t gone extinct, according to FWS, the purpose of the ESA is presumably not to hold embattled organisms in tenuous limbo, but rather to actually save them from the brink of non-existence. If half a century of federal protections under the Endangered Species Act hasn’t been enough to improve conditions, maybe the policy isn’t sufficient—and maybe Biden has to do more than revert to the pre-Trump status quo to meaningfully halt the biodiversity crisis.