‘A gut punch’: Biden Interior Dept quietly plans to strip protections from key species

"We'd hoped that the horrific anti-wildlife tactics so often employed during the Trump era had ended, but it appears we were wrong," said one conservationist.

Conservation advocates accused the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of “deep rot within the agency” Monday as they condemned the Biden administration’s plan to weaken or eliminate protections for several endangered species—a step that officials appear to be taking without any consideration for the threats the climate crisis poses to the animals.

Writing to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Interior Department Inspector General Mark Lee Greenblatt, and other officials, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) demanded to know why the USFWS would decide now to reduce protections for species including the Florida panther, the Key deer, the Canada lynx, and the whooping crane.

In the case of the latter three, the group slammed the service’s proposal—buried in the regulatory agenda it released late last week—to downlist the species.

The Key deer, which make their habitat in the Florida Keys, face impending sea level rise in “some of the most imperiled parts of the United States due to climate change,” wrote the group, with nearly 90% of the Keys lying less than five feet above sea level—yet the recovery plan released in the service’s regulatory agenda “does not include a single recovery action to address habitat loss from sea-level rise.”

In the case of the whooping crane, which migrates each year to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Aransas faces rising sea levels and more frequent, severe hurricanes, both of which threaten the blue crab—the crane’s primary food source.

The USFWS has proposed a review that may result in the downlisting of the crane, even though the recovery plan for the bird states that the Texas population must reach 1,000 cranes or a second migratory population reaches more than 120 cranes for a decade before a review of its status is warranted.

“Neither of these criteria have been reached, and the whooping crane still remains one of the rarest birds in the world,” wrote the CBD. “Why would the service reduce protections now?”

In the case of the crane and the Key deer, the group suggested that instead of making decisions regarding downlisting “after gathering and analyzing the best available science,” the agency has already decided to reduce protections for the species and the science will now be “manipulated to achieve a political, predetermined outcome.”

“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 Brett Hartl, government affairs director for CBD, referring to an executive order introduced by Biden just after he was inaugurated. “We’d hoped that the horrific anti-wildlife tactics so often employed during the Trump era had ended, but it appears we were wrong.”

The agency’s proposal regarding the Florida panther offers an illustration of the service’s history of deciding to reduce protections for a species regardless of scientific evidence, the group said, warning that interests of developers were being put before those of “one of the most critically endangered species in the country.”

The USFWS “appears to be moving forward on a Trump-era political effort to end protections for the Florida panther in violation of all scientific integrity principles to benefit special-interest developers in south Florida, even though the panther remains one of the most critically endangered species in the country,” reads the letter.

The group said it believes the USFWS under the Trump administration worked to reduce protections for the Florida panther at the behest of real estate developers “who want to destroy habitat, build more panther-killing roads, and continue developing fossil fuel resources without the headache of protecting Florida’s natural heritage.”

Now, the Biden administration appears to be finishing the job started by President Donald Trump’s appointees, the CBD said, calling the move “a gut punch.”

“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,” Hartl said.

The group demanded that the Interior Department, which oversees the USFWS, immediately intervene by ordering officials not to reduce protections for the species.

“We also request that the Inspector General open an inquiry into the effort to delist the Florida panther and that the National Academy of Sciences review the taxonomy of panthers,” the group said.

“As the United States and world continue to face an unprecedented extinction crisis, the Department of Interior must take every measure in its power to halt extinctions, and not bow to the richest special interests’ demands,” the CDB added. “Without immediate intervention right now regarding these unjustified and indefensible proposals, this administration will make clear where its priorities lie.”

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Julia Conley is a Common Dreams staff writer.

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