“In the 40, 50 years of the Endangered Species Act, we’ve recovered very few species. … The act itself hasn’t really been successful in saving very many species.”

— EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, in an interview on Fox Business Network, Aug. 14

The Trump administration has finalized new rules to weaken the Endangered Species Act of 1973, a bedrock wildlife conservation law that bars the development of lands where at-risk species live.

In a Fox Business interview, Wheeler defended the regulatory changes, stating that the ESA has “recovered very few species.” Government statistics show that 47 species of plants and animals deemed at risk under the ESA have been “recovered,” out of nearly 2,000 that have appeared on the list.

But Wheeler is using a very strict definition of what it means to save a species from extinction. These conservation efforts work over many years, and not all species joined the list in 1973. The ESA could be helping a “threatened” or “endangered” species regrow its population significantly before U.S. officials classify it as “recovered” and take it off the list.

The Facts

President Richard M. Nixon signed the bipartisan Endangered Species Act following simpler conservation statutes passed in 1966 and 1969. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) administers the parts of the law that pertain to land and freshwater wildlife, and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is responsible for most marine and anadromous wildlife.

A plant or animal breed can be listed as either “endangered” or “threatened” under the ESA after an assessment of its risk of extinction. “Once a species is listed, powerful legal tools are available to aid the recovery of the species and to protect its habitat,” according to a 2016 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. “Among these legal tools are the ESA’s prohibition of unpermitted ‘take’ (e.g., killing, capturing, or harming) of endangered species and its requirement that agencies, in consultation with FWS or NMFS as applicable, ensure that their actions are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of listed species or result in destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat.”

The ESA routinely stirs debate, and Wheeler is not the first Republican official to question the law’s effectiveness by noting the relatively small number of delisted species.

“While most demographic groups support species conservation to some degree, that support is stronger among urban and suburban populations and less so in rural areas, and is stronger among those along the coasts and less so in central and mountain states,” according to the CRS report, which adds that “some industries (e.g., logging and land development) generally see the ESA as a serious problem, while others (e.g., some commercial fishing and many recreation interests) see it as generally supporting their interests.”

As part of its deregulatory agenda to support such industries as oil and gas, the Trump administration has finalized new rules that could shrink the habitat set aside for wildlife while allowing more oil and gas drilling on those lands.

The new regulations from the Commerce and Interior departments, which are not retroactive, also “remove tools that officials use to predict future harm to species as a result of climate change” and “reveal for the first time in the law’s 45-year history the financial costs of protecting” endangered or threatened species, as The Washington Post’s Darryl Fears reported Monday.

Only Congress can change the wording of the law, but the executive branch has discretion to interpret what it says and how to enforce it. Therefore, regulatory changes can have big practical effects. As The Post reported, had the Trump administration’s new rules been in place in 2010, it would have been nearly impossible to designate the polar bear as a threatened species. The decision to add the polar bear to the list in 2010 was made because of melting sea ice in the Arctic.

The Trump administration’s regulatory changes are set to take effect in the coming weeks. Here’s a rundown of other key elements in the package, from The Post’s report on Monday:

The new rules would also limit the area of land that can be protected to help species recover and survive. Currently, land that plants and animals occupy is set aside for their protection, in addition to areas that they once occupied or might need in the future.
Now, critical habitat that is not occupied might not be protected, opening it up for oil and gas exploration or other forms of development.
Another rule change stripped away language that said a secretary “shall make a [listing] determination solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial information regarding a species’ status,” regardless of its costs.
By removing that sentence, the administration allowed the interior and commerce secretaries to consider the economic impact of a listing. Potential threats to business opportunities and other costs can now be factored by the government and shared with the public.

In the Fox Business interview, Wheeler defended the moves and said the ESA “hasn’t really been successful in saving very many species.”

“Administrator Wheeler’s statement is accurate, 47 out of 1,900 is considered ‘very few,’ ” said EPA spokesman Michael Abboud.

As noted above, government statistics show that 47 species of plants and animals deemed at risk under the ESA have been “recovered” or taken off the list, out of nearly 2,000 that have appeared. Another 18 species are being considered for delisting.

The ratio of listed-to-recovered species is low, but by focusing on that ratio, Wheeler takes a straitjacketed view of what it means to be successful in wildlife conservation.

Scientists have credited the ESA with bringing back from the brink of extinction such iconic species as the bald eagle, the grizzly bear, the California condor, the American alligator, the peregrine falcon, the humpback whale, the black-footed ferret, the Florida manatee, the Tennessee purple coneflower and others.

As the Congressional Research Service found:

The answer to this question [whether the ESA has been effective in saving endangered species] depends very much on the choice of measurement. A major goal of the ESA is the recovery of species to the point at which the protection of the ESA is no longer necessary. If this is the standard, the ESA might be considered a failure, because only 34 species have been delisted due to recovery, as of July 25, 2016. Ten species have become extinct since their listing; eight have been delisted due to scientific reclassification of the species; and eleven have been delisted due to improved data, changes in the law, or improved scientific understanding. In the case of the species now believed extinct, some were originally listed to protect any last remaining few that might have been alive at the time of listing. It can be quite difficult to prove whether extraordinarily rare species are simply that, or in fact are already extinct. For example, two bird species, the ivory-billed woodpecker and the Eskimo curlew, are both listed as endangered, though confirmed sightings are so rare or so far in the past that these birds may actually be extinct; proving a negative (i.e., that such species do not exist any longer) is quite difficult. Rare species are, by definition, hard to find.
Even so, because some scientific studies have demonstrated that most species are listed only once they are very depleted (e.g., median population of about 400 animals for vertebrates listed as endangered according to one study), another measure of effectiveness might be the number of species that have stabilized or increased their populations, even if the species is not actually delisted. If this is the standard, the ESA could be considered a success, since a relatively large number (41% of listed species according to one study) have improved or stabilized their population levels. One could also ask what species might have become extinct if there were no ESA: some species (e.g., red wolves and California condors) might not exist at all without the ESA protection, and this too might be considered a measure of success, even though the species are still rare.

So, as of 2016, focusing on the number of delisted species produced a low success rate of less than 1 percent. But focusing on species that had improved or stabilized their population — short of the U.S. government’s threshold for delisting — produced a success rate of 41 percent, based on a 2015 study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

J. Michael Scott, an emeritus professor in the fish and wildlife department of the University of Idaho, previously told PolitiFact that studies suggest “more than half of the endangered and threatened populations are stable or improving, and that percentage increases with the length of time the species has been protected.”

In its fact check of former Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.), PolitiFact found that, as of 2013, “only one-half of 1 percent of species placed on the list have become extinct, which works out to a success rate of over 99 percent plus” and that “one could just as easily say that less than 1 percent of the species placed on the list have become extinct, and that many species have improved without being delisted.”

Extinction, of course, is part of the circle of life. Ask the dinosaurs. But “many scientists are concerned that the current rate of extinction exceeds background extinction rates over time,” the CRS report noted.

A Trump administration official said: “Delisting a species is the ultimate goal of ESA as it shows that the species is fully recovered with a strong scientific record. Settling for population improvements or some habitat recovery is not something this administration is willing to do. Recovery remains our ambitious goal.”

The Pinocchio Test

Wildlife conservation efforts take many years to work, and the U.S. government’s scientific threshold for a “recovered” species is set high.

Focusing on that metric, as Wheeler did, gives an incomplete view of how the Endangered Species Act works. Studies show that 40 percent to nearly half of at-risk species have improved or stabilized their populations under ESA protection. Many of these plants and animals may be delisted one day; some species may never be delisted and still be considered saved.

Wheeler described the 47 delisted species out of nearly 2,000 as a low batting average. He said the law “hasn’t really been successful in saving very many species” and also said “we’ve recovered very few species.”

Although his comments are technically accurate (especially when he uses the term “recovered,” which is the government’s term for delisted species), the EPA chief leaves out the population gains before species are delisted, which in many cases are substantial. He earns Two Pinocchios.

Two Pinocchios

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