This week the Trump Administration announced changes to the Endangered Species Act that critics say weakens the law while making it easier for industries such as mining, oil and gas, and ranching to do business.
“The Department of Interior has blown a Trump-shaped hole into the Endangered Species Act,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Nevada State Director for the Center for Biology Diversity.
Donnelly said the changes are part of a systematic weakening of two aspects of the law: which species get protected and how much those species are protected.
“This is going to impair our ability to protect and recover species that are currently imperiled, but I think we are as much or more concerned with the prospects for species, which are becoming imperiled and need new protections,” he said.
Donnelly also pointed out that as climate change accelerates and the biodiversity and extinction crisis accelerates, more species will need to be protected.
“They are really stripping away our ability to protect those species,” he said.
In Nevada, where almost 30 plants and animals are listed as endangered or threatened, Donnelly said the biggest worry could be the desert tortoise.
Donnelly said that under the new regulations, a development project can only be forbidden if damage impacts the entire critical habitat; however, most projects only impact a portion of critical habitat.
“This will set up a situation of death by a thousand cuts for the desert tortoise and other endangered species that have a landscape level of protected habitat,” he said.
Kobbe Shaw, with the Tortoise Group, agreed that the changes could be a problem for the protected reptile, but he has been told the tortoises' critical habitat will not be impacted because entities like Clark County and the Nevada Department of Wildlife are still involved in executing the federal government's plans.
“In today’s climate, we see the president say one thing in a tweet and we see the administration doing something completely different," Shaw said. "I think it is reasonable to say in this political climate right now, when we’re talking about federal actions, that you do have to put things in quotation marks because we’re not sure exactly what the end result is going to be.”
But if the end result does lead to the disappearance of the desert tortoise, the impact on the Mojave Desert would be substantial. Shaw said the tortoise is food for some desert predators and it creates homes for other animals when it burrows.
“Things would go very poorly in the ecosystem of the Mojave if the desert tortoise disappeared,” he said.
Besides the desert tortoise, Donnelly is concerned about the Dixie Valley toad. His group and other activists have been trying for years to have the toad listed by the Endangered Species Act.
When the new rules were announced, Donnelly's first thought was for the toad.
One of his biggest concerns is that under the new laws, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can consider the cost of listing a species. In the case of the toad, energy production near its habitat would be impacted.
"The point is the policy of the United States is to prevent extinction not to prevent extinction when it’s economically convenient," Donnelly said.
Donnelly also said that there are ways to balance the needs of industry and business with the mandate of protecting species from extinction.
“Listing species does not mean economic catastrophe," he said. "There are all sorts of examples all across the country of business continuing to operate but operating in such a way that their activities don’t drive species to extinction.”
He gave the greater sage grouse as an example. Donnelly expects the bird to be listed next year. Its habitat covers a large section of Nevada and other western states. He said when the sage grouse is listed, everyone will have to put their heads together to figure out how to protect the bird and allow businesses to thrive.
People have criticized the Endangered Species Act not just because of its impact on industries, but because species are often not removed after being listed.
“It is unreasonable to think species will recover with the snap of the fingers. The Endangered Species Act is the most successful conservation law in the world at preventing extinction,” he said.
Donnelly pointed to the bald eagle and how the act combined with a huge national effort saved the national symbol from extinction.
“The Endangered Species Act works, but we have to let it work and we have to fund it,” he said.
Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director, Center for Biological Diversity; Kobbe Shaw, executive director, The Tortoise Group