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Interior Department announces ESA revisions

By: Sean Ellis
Published in Blog on  August 12, 2019

From right to left, Idaho Farm Bureau Federation President Bryan Searle, U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, Arizona Farm Bureau Federation President Stefanie Smallhouse and Nevada Farm Bureau Federation President Bevan Lister are shown at a signing ceremony Aug. 12 where the Department of Interior announced changes in how the Endangered Species Act is implemented.

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

Washington, D.C.  – The U.S. Department of Interior today announced changes in how the Endangered Species Act is implemented.

American Farm Bureau Federation and Idaho Farm Bureau Federation policy has for years supported changes in the ESA that make it less burdensome on landowners while continuing to protect listed species.

According to the Interior Department, the changes are designed to better promote species recovery while at the same time easing the act’s regulatory burdens on Americans.  

IFBF President Bryan Searle was one of three state Farm Bureau presidents invited to a Department of Interior signing ceremony Aug. 12 where the changes were officially announced.  

Searle called the signing ceremony a historic event.  

“These are good, common-sense changes that will result in the Endangered Species Act being less burdensome on private landowners,” he said. “There was a lot of enthusiasm at the signing event, and applause. It was a great day.”

“Today’s Endangered Species Act reforms serve the needs of imperiled species as well as the people most affected by implementation of the law’s provisions,” said AFBF President Zippy Duvall. “This makes real-world species recovery more likely as a result.”

The majority of the habitat that listed species need to survive is located on private land and the changes allow greater flexibility for private landowners to be more creative in assisting in species recovery.

The new regulations encourage and make it easier for private landowners, as well as states, to invest in conservation actions.

Since the ESA was enacted by Congress in 1973, less than 2 percent of listed species have been recovered and delisted.

While the act has had a less than stellar history when it comes to actually recovering species, it has resulted in a lot of pain and bureaucratic nightmares for many Americans who have had to wade through its burdensome and sometimes unrealistic regulations, Searle said.

“The changes to the ESA will not only ease the act’s burdens on the public but they will also help in achieving the act’s ultimate goal: the recovery of threatened or endangered animals and plants,” he said.

The changes announced Aug. 12 apply to sections 4 and 7 of the ESA and deal with adding species to or removing them from the act’s protections, the designation of critical habitat, and consultation with federal agencies

The new regulations restore the distinction between threatened and endangered species and clarify when a species should be removed from the endangered or threatened list, which will encourage private parties to engage in private conservation actions.

Duvall said the new regulations restore the traditional distinction between threatened and endangered species.

“That’s important,” he said. “In the real world, the things we must do to restore a threatened species are not always the same as the ones we’d use for endangered species. This approach will eliminate unnecessary time and expense and ease the burden on farmers and ranchers who want to help species recover.”

Duvall said the changes will simplify environmental review and interagency consultations and provide much-needed consistency in the listing and de-listing process.

“Keeping species on the endangered list when they no longer face the threat of extinction takes valuable resources away from species that still need ongoing protection under the ESA … Farm Bureau welcomes all of these changes,” he said.

There is potential regulatory relief when a species is downlisted from endangered to threatened and the changes allow for private, state and local entities to undertake conservation actions that allow for that downlisting to occur.

The changes include specially tailored regulations for threatened species that are designed to expedite conservation measures by exempting them from permitting requirements.

The changes also streamline the environmental review process.

“The act’s effectiveness rests on clear, consistent and efficient implementation,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said during the signing ceremony. “An effectively administered act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation.”

“The revisions finalized with this rulemaking fit squarely within the president’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals,” said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. “These changes were subject to a robust, transparent public process, during which we received significant public input that helped us finalize these rules.”

According to a DOI news release, the ESA prohibits agencies from making listing determinations based on anything but the best available scientific and commercial information and those will remain the only criteria on which listing determinations will be made.

According to the DOI news release, while the department recognizes the value of critical habitat as a conservation tool, “in some cases, designation of critical habitat is not prudent. Revisions to the regulations identify a non-exhaustive list of such circumstances, but this will continue to be rare exceptions.”

The new regulations also reinstate the requirement that when designating critical habitat, areas where threatened or endangered species are present at the time of listing be evaluated first before unoccupied areas are considered.

“This reduces the potential for additional regulatory burden that results from a designation when species are not present in an area,” the DOI news release states. “In addition, the regulations impose a heightened standard for unoccupied areas to be designated as critical habitat.”

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