Wolves. Polar Bears. Even the cactus ferujian pigmy owl.
Those are among the animals at the center of a debate over President Donald Trump’s endangered species policies.
Environmental advocates say some of America’s most iconic species are getting squeezed under policies intended to boost American energy dominance. They are lashing out at efforts by the administration over the past two years to ease species protections, open up habitats for energy development, cut conservation programs and roll back environmental regulations.
Trump administration officials counter that they are taking reasonable steps to protect wildlife even while opening up public lands to more drilling and mining.
The administration also says it is returning more authority to states, stressing that tribal and local officials are better positioned than federal bureaucrats to strike a proper balance between conservation and the interests of local communities.
But even Trump’s signature campaign promise – the expansion of a wall on the southern border – is coming under criticism from environmentalists who say such a barrier would disrupt migratory patterns.
“The safety net for wildlife in this country, which had been the federal government, has been almost completely unraveled,” said Bob Dreher, who served as associate director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Obama administration.
The Trump administration contends that expanded drilling and mining not only boosts local economies but also provides national security by lessening U.S. dependence on foreign countries whose governments may be hostile or unstable.
Trump’s push contrasts starkly with that of Obama, who made wildlife protection a key priority, said Ann D. Navaro, a former Interior Department Interior attorney who worked for both administrations.
“So they kind of went far to one edge of the legal playing field and this administration, of course, has a very different policy approach,” she said. “This administration (from) the very beginning saw itself wanting to go far to the other edge of the legal playing field.”
Here are five animals snared in the policy debate:
The administration’s decision to de-list the iconic predator in March drew howls of protest from environmental groups who argue the species cannot survive in the long term without the protections of the Endangered Species Act.
The animal had all but disappeared in the lower 48 states by the early 1900s.
“Today, the wolf roams free in nine Western states and is fit for de-listing,” said Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in defending the decision.
“The facts are clear and indisputable – the gray wolf no longer meets the definition of a threatened or endangered species,” Bernhardt said in a statement. “Today the wolf is thriving on its vast range and it is reasonable to conclude it will continue to do so in the future.”
But Collette Adkins, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, has a different view: “This disgusting proposal would be a death sentence for gray wolves across the country.”
Greater sage grouse
The Obama administration helped broker a deal with Western states, hunters, ranchers and conservation groups to protect the charismatic bird known for its colorful mating ritual, but the Trump administration recently lifted some of the restrictions on drilling on public lands.
“Replacing a science-based agreement with a more favorable plan for oil and gas ignores Western values, undermines collaborative conservation and may push sagebrush wildlife to the brink,” according to the National Audubon Society.
But the amended plan has the backing of a bipartisan group of Western governors, including Democrat Kate Brown of Oregon, who had sought more input than the original deal gave them.
“Balancing sage grouse habitat protection and economic development requires mitigation of negative impacts,” she said. “This agreement is a critical step that marks a shift away from planning toward active conservation and landscape management to protect this iconic species.”
North Atlantic right whale
The Trump administration’s decision last year to move ahead with seismic testing off the East Coast imperils one of the world’s most endangered large whale species, environmental advocates say.
Seismic airgun blasting is used to determine the size and location of oil and gas deposits under the ocean. The Trump administration has made offshore drilling a key part of its “American Energy Dominance” agenda.
“The Trump administration’s rash decision to harm marine mammals hundreds of thousands of times in the hope of finding oil and gas is shortsighted and dangerous,” said Diane Hoskins, campaign director at Oceana. “Seismic airgun blasting can harm everything from tiny zooplankton and fish to dolphins and whales.”
The administration has cast expanded offshore drilling as an economic and security issue.
“Responsibly developing our energy resources on the Outer Continental Shelf in a safe and well-regulated way is important to our economy and energy security, and it provides billions of dollars to fund the conservation of our coastlines, public lands and parks,” then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said last year.
The resource-rich Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is an attractive target for oil companies.
It also happens to be the home of polar bears, walruses and porcupine caribou who face increased threats by the administration’s push to open drilling in ANWR.
The refuge has been off-limits to drilling but the Trump administration has supported it. Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski wrote a provision to open the area, and it was included in the Republican tax bill passed in late 2017.
The measure, signed into law by Trump, would open a 1.5 million-acre coastal section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to potential drilling.
Murkowski’s office said the drilling would occur “in a tiny sliver of the non-wilderness portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, on Alaska’s Outer Continental Shelf, and in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. These areas collectively hold almost 35 billion barrels of conventional oil and could refill the critical 800-mile long Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which is currently running two-thirds empty.”
But several Democratic senators, led by Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, are asking Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to delay any leases until the public has more time to comment on a draft Environmental Impact Statement on potential oil and gas development.
“The Refuge is one of the last truly wild places on Earth,” they wrote in the January letter. “Much of its wildlife is as sensitive and imperiled as it is iconic.”
Polar bears and other animals who live there won a temporary reprieve March 29 when a a federal judge ruled that the administration lacked the authority to overturn Obama’s decisions to withdraw oil and gas leases in parts of that area.
Dunes sagebrush lizard
This small light brown spiny denizen of the Southwest is one of dozens of animals environmental advocates have petitioned the Interior Department be given Endangered Species Act protections.
In addition, they’re also asking that the lizard’s habitat in southeastern New Mexico and neighboring Texas be granted special protection because of threats from oil and gas drilling.
There’s a large battle being waged over the act. For decades, species who were close to being listed enjoyed similar protections as those officially listed as endangered. The Trump administration is proposing to change the provision, known as the “blanket rule” so that such “threatened” species would not get those safeguards unless it was proved they needed them.
“The blanket rule reflexively prohibits known habitat management practices, such as selective forest thinning and water management, that might ultimately benefit a threatened species,” Bernhardt wrote in a column for the Washington Post last year when he was deputy secretary. “We need creative, incentive-based conservation, but that becomes impossible with the current blurring of the lines between the two distinctions.”
Navaro, the former Interior lawyer, said it wouldn’t be unprecedented. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which also has jurisdiction over endangered species, has no blanket rule.
Dreher, the former Obama official who’s now senior vice president for conservation programs at Defenders of Wildlife, said it would be a harmful move.
“It may not sound like much but the default will be no protection instead of protection,” he said. “And with drastically reduced budgets and all the pressure of the bureaucracy in favor if development decision, it makes it really likely that threatened species will not get the level of protection they need.”
The president’s expanded border wall is aimed at preventing people from illegally crossing the border from Mexico into the U.S.
But it could also disrupt ecosystems and migratory patterns of fragile species, Dreher said.
Cactus ferujian pigmy owls, for example, won’t fly higher than 10 feet and won’t cross open space because they fear attacks by hawks.
So building a wall and clearing the land on either side of the wall creates an impassible biological barrier in the middle of that population, he said. That would endanger the owls further by making them more vulnerable to diseases because they can no longer breed with their genetic cousins across the border.
“It heightens the risk that they will go extinct on both sides of the border,” Dreher said.
To learn more
Drilling: Trump administration set to roll out massive offshore oil plan, but many in GOP don’t want it
Get smart fast: Congress moves to ‘drill, baby, drill’ in Alaska’s ANWR. Here’s what you should know
Politics: Biggest obstacle to passage of Green New Deal? Democratic lawmakers
U.S.-Mexico border: Here’s where Trump’s border barriers will be built in 2019
Managing the land: Congress sends Trump lands bill that would protect more than 2 million acres