President Trump's administration has been reluctant to use its power to protect species threatened with extinction, as scientists around the globe warn of a deepening crisis in the loss of biodiversity.
More than two full years into Trump’s presidency, the nation's two main wildlife agencies have listed a total of 17 species as threatened or endangered, according to data compiled by the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental nonprofit group.
That's far behind the pace of the Barack Obama administration, which listed an average of 35 species per year and in total placed Endangered Species Act protections on 358 different kinds of plants and animals. It's also behind the pace of some past Republican administrations, including those of George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, who respectively oversaw an average of 58 and 32 listings annually.
The Trump administration's relatively sparing use of the federal government's considerable power to protect imperiled plants and animals comes as up to 1 million species around the world face the threat of extinction, according a panel of U.N. scientists.
That group, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, released a major report Monday outlining how the loss of species, such as coral reefs that sustain fisheries and bees that pollinate crops, could devastate the lives and livelihoods of human beings around the planet. Nearly 150 scientists from 50 nations worked for three years to compile the report.
In the United States, the federal government can use the Endangered Species Act to make it illegal to harm rare species by declaring them endangered or threatened. Wildlife officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service can even extend those protections to foreign species by prohibiting trade of animal parts, as the United States is considering doing with the giraffe.
In a statement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it plans to look closely at the U.N. report.
"Fish and Wildlife Service is a global leader in the effort to combat extinction," it continued. "The successes in recovering some of America's most imperiled wildlife to date have been possible because of the partnerships we have formed with state agencies, private industries and individuals, and NGOs. Our focus continues to be on the recovery of listed species that we know need our urgent help."
But biodiversity advocates say the Trump administration overall has been slow to make such designations over concerns, they say, of hampering businesses that have to work around the rare species.
Last month, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Trump administration, including its recently confirmed Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, for dragging its feet in deciding whether to list two dozen potentially imperiled species.
In 2016, before Trump's election, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rolled out a plan for tackling a long backlog of species awaiting listing decisions. The environmental group is now saying the department is failing to follow through on its own plan.
The 24 plants and animals mentioned in the lawsuit include two different types of bumblebees and two types of orchids, as well as the Panamint alligator lizard endemic to the few streams and springs in California’s desert mountains and the elfin-woods warbler native to the rare dwarf forests of Puerto Rico.
The Center for Biological Diversity's endangered species director, Noah Greenwald, said both Democratic and Republican administrations have struggled to meet deadlines for declarations under the Endangered Species Act. It takes on average 12 years for the U.S. government to make a decision on whether to formally list species, while the statute calls for a two-year time frame.
“It's been a long-standing problem,” he said, noting Fish and Wildlife's backlog includes more than 500 species at risk of extinction.
But Greenwald added that wildlife officials under the past two GOP presidents have been especially reluctant to make timely decisions. And he sees at least one commonality between the George W. Bush and Trump administrations.
That would be Bernhardt, who has served as both deputy secretary and now secretary under Trump, and as the department’s solicitor under Bush.
“Under the last two Republican administrations,” Greenwald said, “the problem has been magnified because we've had Bernhardt in there, who is essentially resistant to listing species.”
In fact, wildlife agencies were even less enthusiastic about extending protections to species under Bush. That administration listed an average of only about eight species per year. Over his first two years, Trump's administration had the second-lowest average since Jimmy Carter was president.
Environmental advocates say there are other steps the Trump administration can take to improve biodiversity besides invoking the Endangered Species Act. Tiffany Finck-Haynes at Friends of the Earth called on lawmakers and regulators to discourage the use of insecticides in farming that can not only kill the pests that harm crops but also the pollinators that help them.
“There's a lot they should be doing and there's a lot they're not doing,” she said.
The animal the Trump administration most recently added to the Endangered Species Act list was the Bryde’s whale in the Gulf of Mexico, with possibly as few as 45 thought to exist. Others include the South Island Hector's and Maui dolphins, named for the Pacific islands they live near, as well as two clams and five flowering plants.
Many Republicans lawmakers have long seen the 46-year-old conservation law as defective for failing to take into account the economic cost of saving a species. As the law is written, only hard science — not economics — can be taken into consideration.
That criticism has come even during the Trump administration, with former congressman Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) saying last year that the listing of one of the clams, the Texas hornshell, “has the potential to cause harm to local communities, businesses [and] jobs.”
But the U.N. panel say the pending loss of biodiversity because of human activity will have its own severe economic impacts.
International trade, for example, has brought invasive insects to the United States that can decimate croplands and forests. At sea, overfishing is straining fish populations on which many populations rely for sustenance. And in many cases, climate change is exacerbating these other problems.
“Since 1992, we’ve been telling the world we have a problem,” Robert Watson, a British chemist who served as the U.N. panel’s chairman, said during teleconference Sunday. “Now what’s different? It’s much worse today than it was in 1992.”
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— Pompeo leaves Arctic countries in cold on climate: Following a meeting of Arctic nations, Finnish Foreign Ministry Timo Soini said there would be no joint declaration referring to climate change coming from the Arctic Council “as the summit couldn’t get the United States to agree on a text that includes language about climate change,” the Associated Press reports. A ministerial statement sent out early Tuesday made no explicit mention of the issue, calling for “reaffirming our commitment to the well-being of the inhabitants of the Arctic, to sustainable development and to the protection of the Arctic environment.”
The United States did make some implicit mentions of climate change: At the opening session of the Arctic Council in Finland, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo focused on national security concerns, warning about Russian militarization and Chinese investment in the Arctic, the region which has been of growing concern to the Pentagon as melting polar ice has meant new sea lanes, and more opportunities for Russia and China to expand activities there, The Post’s Carol Morello reports. During his remarks, Pompeo also suggested the melting ice bolstered trade opportunities. “Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade,” he said. “This could potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days.”
— The feud over Trump's handling of Puerto Rico recovery continues: House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) sent a letter to the White House and multiple government agencies demanding records related to the federal response in the U.S. territory following Hurricane Maria, The Post’s Jeff Stein reports. In the letter to the White House, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Energy Management Agency, Cummings and other Democratic lawmakers also panned their GOP colleagues who they write “refused to join Democrats in sending even one request” for records. “For the past two years, the White House has refused to produce to the committee any documents regarding the Trump administration’s abominable response,” the letter reads. “The Oversight Committee is reestablishing its investigation of the Trump administration’s response to the hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands — and the White House will not be exempt.”
On Twitter: The president took a jab at Democratic lawmakers in a tweet that blamed them for holding up disaster funding. He also said, “Puerto Rico had received $91 billion in federal aid already — a number debunked by fact-checkers — as Democratic critics and some experts have accused the administration of responding more slowly to Maria than it did to hurricanes in Florida and Texas,” Stein adds.
On the ground in Puerto Rico: It’s been more than 19 months after Maria battered the island, and FEMA is still determining whether to rebuild a remote hospital in Vieques. It’s the only hospital there, Stein and Dennis M. Rivera report, but the administration is still assessing how much the government is required to rebuild. It’s not unusual for such deliberations to take this long, reconstruction experts told The Post, and efforts to rebuild hospitals and other facilities after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy were similarly protracted. “But the delay has drawn sharp criticism from congressional Democrats and Puerto Rican officials, who say FEMA is taking too long to get critical infrastructure repaired on the island, highlighting Vieques and its hospital as what they call a particularly egregious example."
— AOC holds a D.C. rally next week: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is set to headline a rally at Howard University next week where she'll tout her Green New Deal proposal. The event is part of a series of events hosted by youth climate activist group Sunrise Movement, the New York Times reports. “From fire-scarred California to areas of the plains devastated by flooding, people are hungry for a big vision to transform our economy in line with science and justice demands,” group co-founder Varshini Prakash said. “I’m thrilled to be joining Representative Ocasio-Cortez to close out the tour and lay out what’s next in the Green New Deal campaign.”
— Bernhardt and Perry on the Hill: David Bernhardt will make his first appearance before House lawmakers following his swearing in, E&E News reports, testifying Tuesday before a House Appropriations subcommittee to defend the agency’s budget request. Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Rick Perry is set to testify this week on the department’s budget request before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.
— Door revolves: The White House said last week it would tap former energy lobbyist Robert Wallace for the role of assistant secretary for fish and wildlife, a post that’s been vacant since the beginning of the Trump administration. Wallace spent 17 years as manager of government relations for GE Energy, E&E News reports, following a career on Capitol Hill where his roles included serving as a Republican staff director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and previously as chief of staff to then-Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.). “NPS and FWS still lack Senate-confirmed directors. In the absence of a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary overseeing the two agencies, the responsibility has been shouldered by political appointees serving in an acting capacity,” per the report.
—"It’s all one perfect storm": The floods that have inundated parts of the Midwest this year have especially impacted a critical energy transit hub in the region. Just last week, as the Mississippi River reached its highest water levels in more than a quarter century, the U.S. Coast Guard shut down a five-mile stretch of the waterway in St. Louis that serves as "a major commercial artery" for not only Midwestern farmers but for the coal and crude oil producers as well, The Post’s Frances Stead Sellers and Annie Gowen report.
— Tentative launch date set for new Weather Service forecasting model: The National Weather Service is planning to replace its Global Forecast System model with what it’s calling a “next-generation” weather model system around mid-June, The Post’s Jason Samenow reports. The launch of the upgraded American forecasting model comes after a several-months delay. The Weather Service “paused implementation after users of the test version of the model reported that its forecasts were unrealistically cold and snowy.”
- The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies holds a hearing on the 2020 fiscal year Interior budget.
- The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation holds a hearing on “The Cost of Doing Nothing: Maritime Infrastructure Vulnerabilities in an Emerging Arctic” on Wednesday.
- The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change holds a hearing on banning asbestos on Wednesday.
— Here's how Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) weighed in on a Monday full of news:
I think they should name the royal baby CLIMATE CHANGE IS A PLANETARY EMERGENCY— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) May 6, 2019