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For Immediate Release, December 8, 2011

Contact:  Noah Greenwald, (503) 484-7495

Proposed Obama Policy on Endangered Species Act Is Recipe for Extinction

WASHINGTON— The Obama administration today released a draft policy interpreting a key phrase in the Endangered Species Act that determines when species qualify for protection. Under the Act, an endangered species is defined as any species “in danger of extinction in all or a significant of portion of its range.” The phrase “significant portion of range” is important, because it means that species need not be at risk of extinction globally to receive protection. The policy proposed today sharply limits interpretation of this phrase by both defining “significant” to mean only where the species currently exists, not its historic range and by defining significant to mean that loss of the species from that portion of range would threaten the survival of the species as a whole.

“Under the policy proposed today, a species could be absolutely gone or close to vanishing almost everywhere it’s always lived — but not qualify for protection because it can still be called secure on one tiny patch of land,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The policy absolutely undermines the spirit of the Endangered Species Act and will be a recipe for extinction of our native wildlife if it’s finalized — a loophole that’s really a black hole. It will allow for massive species decline and habitat destruction.”

The draft policy retains a key aspect of a similar Bush-era policy adopted in 2007, which also argued that loss of historic range need not be considered when determining if a species is endangered in a significant portion of its range. The approach has been criticized by scientists as a “shifting baseline,” whereby the history of species is ignored. A study published by the Center in the international journal Conservation Biology cited the Colorado River cutthroat trout as a case in point: The trout was denied protection even though Fish and Wildlife acknowledged it has been lost in 87 percent of its historic range, including the biggest and best streams, and continues to face many threats.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has long been criticized for only protecting species on the very brink of extinction, which makes recovery a difficult uphill slog,” said Greenwald. “This policy would actually codify that approach, essentially saying: Let’s only protect these creatures when they’re in as desperate a state as possible.”

The policy does reverse one aspect of the Bush administration policy that limited Endangered Species Act protections only to places where species were considered endangered, rather than their entire range. The policy was applied to several species, including the gray wolf and Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, but was overturned by the courts. 

But in a classic example of government doublespeak, today’s draft policy says that a species being endangered in a significant portion of range provides an independent basis for protection; it then defines the phrase to mean that the species must be at risk in all of its range. As with the “historic range” dodge, this will allow the agency to ignore species loss in significant areas and not provide protection. Fish and Wildlife did just this in a recent decision to deny protection to cactus ferruginous pygmy owls, even though the animal is at risk of being lost in the entirety of the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mexico. 

“Future generations will look back at the mass extinctions of our time with nothing but sadness and regret,” said Greenwald. “Yet the agencies the American people trust to prevent these irreversible extinctions constantly seek to limit their own ability to stop species dying off. It’s both tragic and absurd.” 

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