WASHINGTON— Buried in the Biden administration’s unified regulatory agenda released last week is a plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to weaken or end protections for several iconic species, including the whooping crane, key deer and Florida panther.
The upcoming proposed rules could spell disaster for these three animals, notes a letter sent today to the Biden administration by the Center for Biological Diversity. Both the whooping crane and key deer are at severe risk from sea-level rise and climate change. The Florida panther remains one of the most endangered cat populations in the world.
“It’s a gut punch that the Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking to weaken protections for whooping cranes and key deer, when both species’ homes could be underwater in decades,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center. “And it’s appalling that the Fish and Wildlife Service is even considering moving forward with a Trump-era plan to reduce protections for the Florida panther just to enrich special interest real-estate developers.”
Most of Big Pine Key — the biggest stronghold of the Florida Key deer — will be under water in decades because of sea-level rise caused by climate change, and the deer’s habitat is increasingly imperiled by more frequent and more intense hurricanes. In addition to habitat loss, the Key deer is threatened by the New World screwworm, which killed more than 10% of the entire population in 2016.
The only wild, free-flying whopping crane population winters along the Texas coast around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, which is also threatened by sea-level rise. The crane is also jeopardized by pesticides, powerline collisions, oil spills and habitat loss. The Service’s own recovery plan calls for at least 1,000 wild cranes before downlisting to threatened status can occur, but the population today remains at only half that — 506 individuals.
Records released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request show that the Fish and Wildlife Service regional office decided to begin the process of reducing panther protections in 2018 by downlisting them to threatened. That was years before the agency completed an official five-year review or species status assessment, neither of which are finished yet.
There are only approximately 200 Florida panthers in the world — that’s about half the size of the Siberian tiger population, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature ranks as critically endangered.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service is thumbing its nose at President Biden’s directive to federal agencies to follow the best available science in all decisions, especially those relating to climate change,” said Hartl. “We’d hoped that the horrific anti-wildlife tactics so often employed during the Trump era had ended, but it appears we were wrong.”
Even before the Trump administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service routinely ranked among the worst agencies in terms of concerns about political interference undermining the scientific process. In a 2015 survey, 73% of responding Fish and Wildlife Service scientists reported that the level of consideration of political interests was too high.