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Biden Administration Restores Protections Under the Endangered Species Act

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After three years of planning and navigating the slow bureaucracy of federal rule-making, the Biden administration is restoring a series of protections for imperiled animals and plants that had been loosened under President Donald J. Trump.

The rules, proposed last year and now finalized, give federal officials more leeway to protect species in a changing climate; bring back protections for animals that are classified as “threatened” with extinction, which is one step short of “endangered”; and clarify that decisions about whether to list a species must be made without considering economic factors.

They come as countries around the world grapple with a biodiversity crisis that has taken hold as humans have transformed the planet.

“As species face new and daunting challenges, including climate change, degraded and fragmented habitat, invasive species, and wildlife disease, the Endangered Species Act is more important than ever to conserve and recover imperiled species now and for generations to come,” said Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which issued the finalized rules along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries service. “These revisions underscore our commitment to using all of the tools available to help halt declines and stabilize populations of the species most at-risk.”

The rules are expected to set off a new round of lawsuits. Republicans in Washington and industry groups had assailed the initial proposal and are expected to do the same with the finalized version.

“The imposed Endangered Species Act restrictions are especially harmful to those, such as our farmer/rancher members, who depend on being able to produce their livelihoods through access to and use of natural resources,” the Nevada Farm Bureau Federation wrote in a comment to the proposed changes. Others that have spoken out against them include the oil and gas industry, foresters and states that want more control over managing wildlife.

Conor Bernstein, vice president of communications at the National Mining Association, said that while his group supports the conservation goals of the Endangered Species Act, the law imposes unnecessary restrictions on development and creates regulatory uncertainty.

Environmental groups, on the other hand, have been eagerly awaiting the finalization of these regulations, though some wished the Biden administration had gone further.

“This administration is restoring some really important rules for endangered species,” said Mike Leahy, a senior director at the National Wildlife Federation. “But given all the threats they face, we would have liked to see them restore more protections, so their critical habitats can’t be picked apart piece by piece, or past harms to these species can’t be ignored.”

Mr. Leahy said rules protecting threatened and endangered species are especially important because Congress is not providing the funding that federal, state and tribal biologists need to recover them.

The Endangered Species Act, which turned 50 last year, is both lauded and loathed. Those who prioritize environmental health and the protection of America’s wildlife see it as a landmark law that has saved untold species from extinction. Others criticize it for curtailing economic activity and stomping on the rights of states and individuals.

During the Trump administration, officials weakened the law, undoing protections for animals categorized as threatened and allowing regulators to conduct economic assessments when deciding whether a species warrants protection. Environmental groups had argued those assessments had no place in such decisions.

The Biden administration had previously reversed a Trump-era change related to the definition of habitat for endangered animals.

During the public comment period for the new rules, officials received about 468,000 comments from a wide range of groups including those representing various industries, environmental advocates, states and tribes.

Some comments came from individuals, like Carol Ellis of Spokane, Wash., who wrote in support of strengthening the law. “We humans are creating the 6th extinction!” she wrote. “Get with the science.”

Lisa Friedman contributed reporting.

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