The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It could take years for Biden to restore wildlife protections erased by Trump

Conservationists say the president-elect would have to start on Day One to draft policy to address Trump’s changes to the Endangered Species Act and other laws.

Polar bears pass a ridge of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean in Alaska. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently granted a permit that allows companies to harass polar bears as they search for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

When President-elect Joe Biden walks through the door of the White House with his rescue dog, Major, he will inherit a Migratory Bird Treaty Act that no longer protects birds, a watered-down Endangered Species Act, and a policy that allows hunters in Alaska to crawl into bear and wolf dens to shoot mothers and their babies.

And that’s just in the United States.

The Trump administration has allowed importation of the carcasses of endangered elephants and rhinoceros, as well as lions, as hunting trophies — reversing a ban on the practice enacted when Biden was vice president under President Barack Obama.

Conservationists think President Trump has weakened federal protections for wildlife in a way that, in some cases, will take Biden years undo.

“For the past four years, the Trump administration worked overtime to weaken the Endangered Species Act, ignoring the warnings from scientists around the world that we’re in an unprecedented extinction crisis,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

In addition to weakening protections for wildlife, the Trump administration’s failure to try to mitigate climate change has further harmed animals, critics say. Scientists say a warming planet is resulting in habitat loss and an alarming rate of species extinction.

Last year, two major reports by scientists worldwide supported the finding that human activity has triggered the sixth great extinction event, threatening to wipe out wildlife on a massive scale.

In May 2019, a United Nations panel determined that 1 million species face extinction — “more than any other period in human history.”

Four months later, top ornithologists in government and academia reported that 3 billion birds have vanished in North America over the past 50 years.

Quoting ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ judge strikes down Trump administration rollback of historic law protecting birds

For conservationists who expressed outrage about Trump’s policies, Biden is a friend. He has a favorable 83 percent lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters dating to 1973.

As a senator, Biden co-sponsored legislation to ban the practice of farming animals to be killed by hunters. At a town hall meeting in March during the Democratic presidential primary, he supported a ban on hunting trophies from Africa.

“For decades, the Endangered Species Act has protected our most vulnerable wildlife from extinction,” Biden said on his Facebook page. “Now, President Trump wants to throw it all away.

“At a time when climate change is pushing our planet to the brink, we should strengthen protections — not weaken them,” he said.

Biden’s administration would have to start drafting policy to reverse Trump’s new rules the day he enters office to make progress in 2021.

The new administration would have to reinterpret key rules in both the Endangered Species Act and bird treaty, draft legal policy, submit it for public comment, then write a final draft. The process often takes more than a year.

Federal courts may have made Biden’s work easier. Judges have repeatedly rejected Trump’s environmental rules, including his recent decision not to fine private citizens and industry when they unintentionally kill massive numbers of birds.

The bird treaty called on industries to cover oil residue pits that birds confuse with bodies of water. Scores of birds die each year after landing in them.

“There is nothing in the text of the MBTA that suggests that to fall within its prohibition, activity must be directed specifically at birds,” Judge Valerie E. Caproni wrote, referring to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, when she ruled against the Trump in August. “Nor does the statute prohibit only intentionally killing migratory birds."

Biden could simply yield to the court decisions, conservationists said.

Despite his court losses, Trump managed to roll back at least 125 environmental regulations. Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, said the Trump administration “launched a full-out war against wildlife.”

“Trophy hunters effectively captured the agencies charged with the protection of wildlife and now we must unwind and address the fatal damage of these destructive decisions. We have our work cut out for us,” Amundson said.

North America has lost 3 billion birds in 50 years

Any effort to change the Trump administration’s policies will be met with stiff resistance from hunters and oil and gas industry officials who influenced the changes.

In a statement, W. Laird Hamberlin, chief executive of Safari Club International, a hunting lobby that opposed the ban on importing African hunting trophies, said hunters pay tens of thousands of dollars for permits that fund wildlife conservation in Africa.

The same is true in the United States, Hamberlin said in a statement. “Hunters and anglers are the number one contributors to conservation in this country," he said. "This administration actually listened to the people by opening up millions of acres of expanded hunting and fishing access on federal lands.”

For years, congressional Republicans sought unsuccessfully to change the Endangered Species Act for the benefit of industry, ranchers and farmers who were restricted from practices that scientists deemed harmful to wildlife. But the Trump administration found a way.

It ushered in new rules that preserved protections for “endangered” plants and animals but erased them for those listed as “threatened,” a less urgent status.

The move made threatened habitats available for development and other intrusions, conservationists said. Trump officials added a provision that other presidents had forbidden, allowing regulators to consider how much money and jobs might be lost when deciding whether to protect a species.

More than 100 species, including walrus and wolverines, were denied protections under Trump and only 25 were given that status, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. The Clinton administration protected 523.

Biden’s policies on climate change

Jason Rylander, a lawyer at Defenders of Wildlife, disagrees with those who say it will be tough to undo the rule changes the Trump administration made to the Endangered Species Act.

“While onerous,” he said, they “did not permanently change the law or even go as far as I feared they might.”

Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a division of the Interior Department, granted a permit that allows companies to harass polar bears as they search for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The department is expected to approve seismic testing this month, when mother polar bears are giving birth to cubs in shallow underground dens.

Last week, the Trustees for Alaska filed a lawsuit “to stop the issuance of any oil and gas leases for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” a statement said.

“This lease sale has been scheduled for early January for the sole reason that the Interior Department wants to get mineral rights in the hands of oil companies before President-elect Biden, who has promised to protect this national treasure, takes office," said Adam Kolton, executive director of Alaska Wilderness League.

America's great outdoors is showing its age. Congress is proposing a facelift.

In another part of Alaska, the Trump administration overturned a rule established under Obama and Biden that banned the slaughter of bears using unorthodox techniques on federal preserves.

Alaska game officials supported the lifting of the ban against allowing hunters to lure bears out of dens with doughnuts to shoot them, and crawling into their dens with blinding lights and guns. They said it restored the rights of indigenous Alaskans and others who hunt for food.

Biden's policies on other topics

But animal rights groups called the techniques inhumane and said Alaska’s true goal is to reduce the number of predators such as bears and wolves so that game animals tracked by hunters will flourish. Hunting generates major revenue in the state.

“The administration undercut protections for species threatened by climate change, weakened rules to protect critical habitat, and gave polluters a blank check to kill birds and other wildlife,” said Greenwald, of the Center for Biological Diversity. “We hope the Biden administration will listen to science and steer the federal government back toward protecting wildlife.”