Trump administration finalizes rule narrowing habitat protected by Endangered Species Act

Alabama, including the Cahaba River shown here, is a hotbed of biodiversity. But many endangered species will lose important protections under a new definition of habitat. (© Beth Maynor Finch)

In its final days in office, the Trump administration is continuing its assault on environmental regulations. The administration finalized a rule in the last days of the year that will weaken the Endangered Species Act by making it more difficult to protect areas as critical habitat for threatened and endangered species.

The rule establishes a narrow definition of “habitat” — a term that Congress and regulators have never thought needed defining in the 50 years since the Endangered Species Act, or ESA, was passed.

For purposes of defining critical habitat under the ESA, the rule limits habitat to areas that contain “the resources and conditions necessary to support one or more life processes of a species.” The problem is, the final rule excludes habitat areas needed to ensure recovery of imperiled species, according to SELC Staff Attorney Ramona McGee.

“The final definition remains very focused on whether an area could support a species today,” said McGee. “This could exclude important habitat from protection—including habitat that might become important as an endangered or threatened species shifts its range in response to climate change, as well as habitat that is currently degraded or fragmented and requires restoration to support imperiled species.”

The final rule’s limitation of this definition to the critical habitat context appears to restrict its reach somewhat, compared to the two more broadly defined alternatives originally proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service.

“The good news is the agencies at least heard our concerns about how the earlier, proposed definitions were not limited to critical habitat,” said McGee. “But this rule change could still have severe consequences for ecosystems across the Southeast. Defining habitat by regulation is unnecessary. The Endangered Species Act has seen 50 years of extraordinary success without it.”

Habitat conservation is a vital component of protecting species from extinction. Habitat degradation and loss is the leading cause of extinction. Keeping degraded habitat from being eligible for critical protections could seriously undermine the conservation and recovery of at-risk species. Erosion controls and development in the Southeast have already damaged places vital to coastal species’ survival—including shorebirds like piping plovers, beach mice like the Alabama beach mouse, and sea turtles like loggerhead turtles.

Similarly, many species’ historic habitat ranges will shift as a result of climate change, but the new definition will prevent federal officials from designating areas that are likely to become habitat in the near future due to climate change. Birds, reptiles, amphibians, marine species, cold-water aquatic species, and high-elevation species will be particularly susceptible to climate-change driven range shifts.

Across the Southeast, there are currently 255 species that receive protections under the Endangered Species Act by their classification as endangered (176), threatened (76), or experimental populations (32).

More News

Southwest Virginia schools can finally go solar

Local government officials and Appalachian Power Co. announced new contracts this month permitting public schools and localities in the utility’s...

Virginia’s Pine Grove School named one of ‘America’s Most Endangered Historic Places’

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has included Pine Grove School on its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2021....

FERC decision clears way for action against Alabama Power’s unjust solar charges

A decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission opens the door for our case against Alabama Power’s punitive monthly solar fee to go to fe...

Biden administration announcement leaves crucial waters in jeopardy

The EPA announced it plans to repeal and replace a harmful, destructive rule by the prior administration that removed federal pollution protectio...

SELC supports House infrastructure bill, with a few caveats

A major federal transportation bill on its way to a vote in the House of Representatives marks a milestone in efforts to reduce the contribution...

3 ways to celebrate World Environment Day from right where you are

At the Southern Environmental Law Center, it’s no secret we love the South. Its people, its incredible biodiversity, and its unmatched natural wo...

More Stories