Biden Admin Re-Revises Trump’s Definition of ‘Habitat’


Two manatees swim together near a riverbed of seagrass.

Manatees in the Homosassa River in Florida where conservationists planted seagrass to help restore their natural habitat. Manatees had been listed as endangered until 2017 thanks to preservation efforts.
Photo: Joe Raedle (Getty Images)

A little bit of legalese goes a long way. The Joe Biden administration striking a single sentence from the Trump-era definition of “habitat” allows the federal government to broadly protect endangered species in any habitat where they could potentially reside.

The US Fish, Wildlife and Parks Service alongside the National Marine Fisheries Services announced on Thursday that they are changing a sentence in the 1973 Endangered Species Act that had been modified under former President Donald Trump to limit the definition of “habitat” to places that could “sustain” endangered species.

In the original bill, “habitat” was defined as anywhere the animal could reside, allowing regulators to protect anywhere an endangered species could be possibly relocated to.

Division chief for conservation at the fish and wildlife service Bridget Fahey told The New York Times the Trump-era definition was extraordinarily limiting since there’s so little habitat left for endangered species to reside. Assistant secretary at the agency Shannon Estonez said in a press release that the change “will bring implementation of the act back into alignment with its original purpose.”

The critical habitat designation does not relate to privately-owned land unless property owners get federal funding or otherwise require federal permits to use their land, according to the FWS.

Trump made the change to the definition of habitat in December of 2020. That administration had a penchant for ignoring the plight of endangered animals in favor of private industry, especially oil drillers.

Of course, some Trump-era politicos weren’t happy with the change. Climate change-denier and Trump’s transition team member Steve Milloy tweeted the change will make it “more difficult to drill for oil and gas.”

It’s a play against Biden who is getting hammered for gas prices in the lead-up to the November midterms, despite the fact the federal government has little to no control over the price at the pump. Still, there may be positives to less drilling overall. A recent study shows that we’d have to drastically cut the amount of oil the world is drilling if we want to avoid severe impacts from warming temperatures. The US would need to restrict a lot more drilling than it already has to meet those projections.

While outside agencies praised the move, some were still critical of the Biden admin’s lethargic pace for undoing the long list of Trump-era deregulations. Stephanie Kurose, a senior policy specialist for the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement that it’s “disappointing” Biden hasn’t moved more quickly on changes to the Endangered Species Act. Biden had previously promised to rescind many environmental regulation rollbacks Trump instituted while in office. In April, the White House restored a law that requires agencies to analyze the environmental impacts of construction projects.

Biden’s team has made some promises, but progress has been slow, and “with the extinction crisis accelerating, we have to take bold, transformative action before it’s too late,” Kurose said.





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