For Immediate Release, January 14, 2021

Contact:

Liz Trotter, Earthjustice, (305) 332-5395, etrotter@earthjustice.org
Noah Greenwald, Center for Biological Diversity, (503) 484-7495, ngreenwald@biologicaldiversity.org
Daniela Arellano, NRDC, (310) 434-2304, darellano@nrdc.org
Virginia Cramer, Sierra Club, (804) 519-8449, virginia.cramer@sierraclub.org
Gwen Dobbs, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-0269, gdobbs@defenders.org
Jordan Rutter, American Bird Conservancy, (202) 888-7472, jerutter@abcbirds.org

Lawsuits Challenge Trump Administration’s Latest Assaults on Endangered Species Act

New Regulations Strip Vital Protection From Imperiled Species’ Essential Recovery Habitat

HONOLULU— Earthjustice filed two lawsuits today in the District of Hawai‘i in response to the outgoing administration’s most recent attacks on the Endangered Species Act, the law that serves as the last safety net for animals and plants facing extinction.

The Trump administration issued two new regulations in December that strip vital protections from federal lands and other areas that the best available science indicates are necessary for the conservation of threatened and endangered species.

The first case filed today challenges the Trump administration’s cramped interpretation of “habitat,” which reverses nearly half a century of protections for habitat that needs restoration to meet species’ needs, as well as areas that species will need in the future as refuges to survive dramatic changes to the world’s climate.

“The drafters of this rule were clearly more concerned with easing industry regulation than upholding the foundational purpose of the ESA — to ensure the protection, conservation and recovery of imperiled species,” said Earthjustice attorney Elena Bryant, lead attorney on the challenge to the habitat definition. “We are going to court to restore protections for the habitat that is essential to pull species back from the brink of extinction.”

The second case argues that the new regulations strip vital protections from federal lands and other areas that the best available science indicates are necessary for the conservation of threatened and endangered species — and prioritize profits for polluting industries over the conservation needs of wildlife facing extinction.

“Critical habitat is a bedrock protection afforded to imperiled species under the Act,” said Earthjustice attorney Leinā‘ala L. Ley, lead attorney challenging the critical habitat exclusion rule. “By making it harder to designate critical habitat, this rule virtually guarantees that the loss of biodiversity and our natural heritage will only accelerate.”

The proposed changes directly undermine the Act’s purpose to prevent extinction and promote recovery. The lawsuits were filed in Hawai‘i, where the new rules could be especially damaging due in part to limited habitat for native species found nowhere else on Earth.

“The new regulation makes it easier for federal land to be excluded from critical habitat, a result that would be particularly harmful to listed bird species that depend heavily on federal lands, such as the northern spotted owl,” said Steve Holmer, vice president at American Bird Conservancy. “These listed bird populations are in decline and facing serious threats. We should be adding protections, not chipping away at the safety net of the ESA.”

“By requiring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to listen to industry rather than science when it decides what habitat to protect, the Trump administration’s new rule is an absolute disaster for endangered species and the places they live,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Endangered Species Act was passed to stop extinction, not facilitate it, and we expect the court to strike down this industry giveaway.”

“Threatened and endangered national park species require more than just park lands for their survival and recovery,” said Bart Melton, wildlife program director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “These regulations make it harder to protect vital areas outside of parks for wildlife and prioritize short-term profit over America’s conservation future. In the midst of the climate crisis we should be working to uphold the core tenants of the Endangered Species Act. Instead these regulations critically damage the intent of the Act. NPCA is hopeful these regulations will be reversed.”

“Critical habitat is a central pillar of the ESA’s protections for listed species, and an essential part of what has made the Act a huge success for the past 50 years,” said Lucas Rhoads, attorney at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “These rules tie the Services’ hands and make it more difficult to protect the areas that listed species need if they are to survive and flourish. To stem the biodiversity crisis we now face, we need the Services to use all the tools available to them — not sell out to industry special interests at the expense of these precious species.”

“In the midst of the first-ever human caused extinction crisis, one of the worst things you could do is impose restrictions on protection of areas essential to imperiled species’ recovery and prioritize corporate profits over preserving the Earth’s biodiversity,” said Bonnie Rice, Sierra Club endangered species campaign representative. “Yet that is exactly what the Trump administration has done. Their relentless decimation of vital protections of the Endangered Species Act will be fought at every turn.”

“Lack of habitat is the main reason why so many species are imperiled,” said Jason Rylander, Defenders of Wildlife senior counsel. “For wildlife to have a fighting chance, they need a place to live. If we hope to save the most vulnerable wildlife from extinction, we will need to prioritize habitat restoration in their recovery.”

“Hawai‘i is the endangered species capital of the world; our small island home has over 30% of the nation’s listed plant and animal species,” said Moana Bjur, executive director of Conservation Council for Hawai‘i. “For us, protecting endangered species and ecosystems is necessary not only to ensure biodiversity and climate resiliency, but also to honor our history and cultural heritage as a place.”

“Designation of critical habitat is a crucial piece of the recovery process for species who have received ESA listing status,” said Lindsay Larris, wildlife program director at WildEarth Guardians. “This new rule shrinks the areas even eligible to be designated as critical habitat for numerous species, making an endangered or threatened species' struggle to truly recover and thrive all the more precarious in our ever-changing and developing world.”

Earthjustice filed both lawsuits on behalf of Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, Center for Biological Diversity, NRDC (Natural Resource Defense Council), Defenders of Wildlife, National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians. American Bird Conservancy joined the critical habitat exclusion challenge and will also be represented by Earthjustice.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.