Chinook to condors: Protecting endangered species and migratory birds

Decades ago, a clutch of foundational environmental laws were crafted to speak on behalf of creatures that cannot speak for themselves: animals and plants. Aspects of those statutes — always attacked by developers and industries who see the laws as restrictive and costly — were carved away during the Trump administration.

Biden and his Secretary of the Interior appointee, Deb Halaand, have pledged to protect imperiled species, reconstitute a suite of dropped protections and revisit Trump’s interpretations of key environmental statutes. How that might be accomplished is not always straightforward.

Many Trump-era environmental changes are entangled in legal challenges that would fall to the Biden administration to defend, said Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity. That could mean that Biden’s appointees can just stop defending them in court. 

Among the Trump rollbacks, all of which California and other states have sued to block:

  • The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is a 1918 law that protects more than 1,000 bird species. Changes by the Trump administration allow industry to kill birds without penalty as long as the act was unintentional. 
  • The Endangered Species Act protects 173 animal species and 286 plants in California, including the California condor, chinook salmon and the gray wolf. Trump’s changes reduced the designation of critical habitat and allow species decisions to include economic analyses. With less than a week left in office, Trump’s Interior Department removed protection from more than three million acres of California, Oregon and Washington habitat for the Northern spotted owl in deference to logging interests.
  • The National Environmental Policy Act mandates an overarching, science-based environmental impact review that guides development and other activities. Agencies were ordered to limit the scope and duration of these reviews, shorten public comment periods and remove the requirement to consider cumulative or long-term impacts of a project.