The Trump administration’s planned rollback of federal protections for endangered species will make it much more difficult for those threatened by climate change, especially if they’re not already officially listed as vulnerable.

That’s the assessment of environmental lawyers, climate scientists and conservationists who are planning legal action to stop the changes in the law that has been in place for more than four decades. 

In Hawaii, they fear the repercussions that the revisions to the Endangered Species Act may have on hundreds of imperiled species, from monk seals and shearwaters to nehe and naupaka.

But it may not be as bad as it seems for plants and animals in the Aloha State. Ironically, that’s because so many here are already listed as threatened or endangered, and the new regulations mostly affect efforts to protect additional species.

Newell’s shearwaters, called ‘a’o in Hawaiian, are threatened with extinction. Nathan Eagle/Honolulu Civil Beat

Still, the changes don’t bode well, according to the groups focused on saving species from extinction.

“Every Hawaii resident concerned about preserving our unique natural heritage for future generations should be concerned by the Trump administration’s attempt to strip away vital protections for endangered and threatened species,” said David Henkin, a Honolulu-based attorney for Earthjustice.

The environmental law firm plans to sue the administration over the new regulations, which take effect in about a month.

U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist, unveiled the changes last week. They alter the consultation process with other federal agencies and how species are added or removed from the list.

It’s harder to include critical habitat if the species isn’t already found there. “Threatened” species won’t automatically receive the same protections as those categorized as “endangered.” And it’s more difficult to use scientific projections that extend beyond the “foreseeable future,” like some of the impending effects of climate change.

Henkin used the Newell’s shearwater as an example of a threatened species that needed protection from the first day it was listed. The seabird’s population on Kauai has plummeted by more than 90% over the past 20 years.

Because the Newell’s shearwater automatically received protection against unauthorized killing or harm to the birds when it was listed, he said efforts have long been underway to address threats to the species’ continued survival from power line collisions and bright lights that attract fledging chicks, causing them to crash to the ground.

“Without the ‘take’ prohibition, human activities could have continued to kill Newell’s shearwaters with impunity,” Henkin said.

Coral colonies off the west coast of the Big Island were devastated by a massive coral bleaching in 2015. Scientists worry changes to the Endangered Species Act could make it harder to save rare species. Alana Eagle/Civil Beat/2017

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a release that the revisions “fit squarely within the President’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals.”

Bernhardt added that the best way to uphold the Endangered Species Act is to ensure it remains effective in achieving its goal of recovering the nation’s rarest species.

“The Act’s effectiveness rests on clear, consistent and efficient implementation,” he said in the release. “An effectively administered Act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation.”

Environmentalists in Hawaii aren’t buying it.

University of Hawaii professor Camilo Mora, who researches how biodiversity patterns are generated and modified by human activities, said the revisions are about greed.

For the first time in the law’s 45-year history, economic considerations can be factored into an agency’s decision on whether to list a species as threatened or endangered. To Mora, that’s about helping developers and oil companies make money at the expense of natural resources.

“This is exactly the definition, in my mind, of evil. I just don’t get it,” Mora said. 

Hawaiian monk seals are one of the most critically endangered mammals in the world. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

He also worries that plants and animals that might one day reveal the cure to cancer or other diseases will be lost. But he’s concerned about the ethical considerations beyond their potential usefulness to humans.

“Those species have their own right to be on this planet,” Mora said.

In January, Hawaii witnessed the loss of another species that was unique to the islands. A Hawaiian tree snail, named Lonesome George after the Pinta Island tortoise that was also the last of its species, died on New Year’s Day.

“You don’t have to go too far to realize that this environmental crisis is right here in front of us,” Mora said.

The Supreme Court has made clear in past cases the plain intent of Congress in enacting the Endangered Species Act, which President Richard Nixon signed in 1973. Henkin pointed to a 1978 case in which the court found the act’s purpose “was to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost.”

The new regulations make it harder for species to get on the list in the first place, he said, depriving them of legal protection.

Henkin sees the revised rules requiring an unreasonable and often unattainable level of certainty regarding future threats to species survival.

“The new regulations all but prohibit consideration of threats due to climate change, which we know is happening, but is difficult to model with the level of precision the new regulations require,” he said.

And climate change is affecting a multitude of species in Hawaii.

Warmer temperatures are bleaching endangered corals and allowing mosquitos to reach higher elevations where they infect imperiled forest birds with avian diseases. And sea level rise is eroding beaches where Hawaiian monk seals pup and sea turtles lay their eggs, Henkin said.

“No longer will species not currently listed receive the benefit of any doubts about the nature and extent of climate change impacts,” he said. “Instead, unless and until there is scientific certainty about future threats, those species will be left vulnerable to destructive activities.”

‘It’ll Be Subtle’

Hawaii’s infamous title of endangered species capital of the world may actually help somewhat, said Brett Hartl of the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.

That’s because the new regulations have less effect on species already listed as endangered or threatened, and many of Hawaii’s troubled plants and animals are already on that list. There are about 434 species, mostly plants, currently protected.

“None of this is the sky is falling, end of the world,” Hartl said. “It’ll be subtle, it’ll be bad, but it won’t be rock-the-boat type of impacts. This is really about the cumulative longterm impacts.”

In response to public comments on the proposed rule changes before they were finalized, federal officials said they “will take all of the available climate change data into consideration when making a reasonable determination regarding the foreseeable future and the status of the species in the foreseeable future.”

“You don’t have to go too far to realize that this environmental crisis is right here in front of us.” — UH professor Camilo Mora

The concern from environmental groups, of course, is how the government defines “foreseeable future.” Many, like Henkin, think it will rule out many effects of climate change that aren’t expected till mid-century.

He’s not too optimistic about the state picking up the slack either.

“People in Hawaii should be particularly concerned about these new obstacles to listing species because our state endangered species law (HRS Chapter 195D) largely relies on the federal ESA to determine which species are threatened and endangered,” Henkin said.

“While it is theoretically possible to add a species to the state list that is not on the federal list, in practice, this rarely happens (due to resource limitations and other factors),” he said. “Accordingly, by making it harder to list species, the new Trump regulations prevent species from receiving protections under state law.”

The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources is still analyzing the potential impacts of changes to the Endangered Species Act on numerous native Hawaiian plants and animals, DLNR officials said in a statement last week. 

“As the endangered species capitol of the world, we are obviously concerned about any steps that will negatively impact efforts to protect our unique birds, mammals, insects, and plants,” the statement says.

DLNR officials said they are uncertain of the potential impacts of the changes to the law, but they will have more information to share as they gain better understanding and clarity.

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