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How Trump plans to change the Endangered Species Act

The Trump administration has announced major changes to the Endangered Species Act, the landmark law signed by President Richard Nixon that's credited with saving iconic species like the bald eagle and the grizzly bear. William Brangham talks to Lisa Friedman of The New York Times about new rules around how scientists designate species as in need of protection and anticipated court challenges.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Trump administration is making some of the broadest changes in years to the Endangered Species Act, the landmark law signed by President Richard Nixon that's been credited with saving iconic species like the bald eagle and the grizzly bear.

    William Brangham explores what today's changes could mean.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Amna. The Endangered Species Act currently protects about 1,600 species in the U.S. by limiting the activities that could harm those species. And it's been overwhelmingly successful in protecting those plants and animals.

    But the act has been a target for Republican lawmakers and industry groups for years. They argue these protections cost too many jobs and too much money. Now, the Trump administration is proposing changes that one Democratic lawmaker referred to as taking a wrecking ball to the act.

    Joining me now is "New York Times" environmental reporter Lisa Friedman.

    Lisa Friedman, welcome back to the "NewsHour".

  • Lisa Friedman:

    Thanks so much for having me.

  • William Brangham:

    Before we get to the administration's proposed changes, what can we say — what species can we credit are alive today because of the Endangered Species Act?

  • Lisa Friedman:

    The Endangered Species Act has helped to save from extinction some of the most well-known plant and animal species in the country, the bald eagle, the grizzly bear, the humpback whale, are all species that owe a tremendous amount to the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

  • William Brangham:

    As I mentioned before, the Republican lawmakers for decades have hated this law, wanted to dial it back. Industry groups said the same, saying it's too costly, it's not really helping as much as it is hurting our industries.

    What is the Trump administration proposing with these new changes?

  • Lisa Friedman:

    There are a number of changes in the final rules that were issued today. A number of them are ones that environmental groups fear will severely weaken protections for plant and animal species.

    I list just two of the big ones for now. One of them is a measure that would weaken the ability of scientists to protect species against the threats of climate change. Another is a phrase that would introduce the ability of the federal government to include economic analysis.

  • William Brangham:

    An analysis, meaning if we're going to protect X species that might cost us Y amount of money.

  • Lisa Friedman:

    Absolutely right. Currently, the way the law reads, scientists can only consider one thing when they're deciding whether or not to list species as threatened or endangered, the science. Is it threatened? Should it be listed?

    That language is going to be eliminated, and what replaces it will give the federal government the ability to conduct analyses just as you described to find out whether listing a species will cost money, will cost money and perhaps lost development. The Interior Department has insisted that this won't change anything, that decisions will still be made purely on the basis of science. They just want to have the information and be able to know the information when these listing possibilities come up.

  • William Brangham:

    These changes are coming amidst a lot of news about endangered species. We saw the U.N. a few months ago put out this report indicating that upwards of a million plant and animal species globally could be threatened if we don't change our ways.

  • Lisa Friedman:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    Help me understand what the administration is arguing here. Are they saying, here in the U.S., we are doing endangered species just fine or are they saying we can do it in a better way? What are they arguing?

  • Lisa Friedman:

    Yes. I think, you know, what we heard from the administration is it's possible to both be stewards of the environment while also cutting red tape, and their argument is that that is what they're doing with this regulation today.

  • William Brangham:

    Is there a sense that if these changes go through, any particular species that might be impacted?

  • Lisa Friedman:

    You know, one of the ones we hear about a lot are species that are affected by climate change and, you know, one that comes to mind easily is the polar bear. The polar bear habitat is going to be affected dramatically by climate change.

  • William Brangham:

    Their sea ice and their habitat disappears year after year.

  • Lisa Friedman:

    Exactly. Some of these changes are far into the future. Whether this new regulation hamstrings scientists' ability to take action to protect these species is something that the environmental groups are very worried about.

  • William Brangham:

    We know these are proposed rules, probably going to be some lawsuits, right? What's the future look like?

  • Lisa Friedman:

    Today, we heard from the attorneys general of Massachusetts and California, they have vowed to sue. Senator Udall, who you mentioned, said that he's going to be looking at legislative measures to block this in Congress. It seems with the makeup of this Congress, it's going to be very hard to pass anything that would block this legislatively. So, I think the — some of these questions about whether this regulation will stand the test of time are going to be answered in the courts.

  • William Brangham:

    Lisa Friedman of "The New York Times," thank you.

  • Lisa Friedman:

    Thank you.

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