The Trump administration issued a number of changes earlier this month to the Endangered Species Act in a move that many believe will weaken its effects.
Since 1973, the ESA has succeeded in saving 99 percent of species from extinction, but one of the most controversial revisions to the act involves removing protections for threatened species.
North Carolina is home to 61 federally endangered and threatened species. Some of North Carolina’s species under threat of extinction include the bald eagle, the red-cockaded woodpecker and the loggerhead turtle.
According to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services, threatened species are species likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.
Sierra Weaver, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said this change will drastically affect threatened species.
“We have always just extended the same protections endangered species get to threatened species,” Weaver said. “What this change does is it says we're not going to protect threatened species the same way.”
This change in protection, she said, can lead to a never-ending cycle of species entering and exiting the endangered species categorization.
“Right as that species is starting to recover, as soon you can get it from endangered to threatened, you remove all the protections and mostly what you will see is that species is going to end up right back in that endangered bucket because it lost all of its protections,” she said.
Also included in this list and often forgotten are mussels. Julie Moore, a recent retiree from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said these animals often reflect what is occurring in the surrounding water and land.
“The mussels are indicative of a larger problem,” she said.
Mussels are key factors in determining water quality, Moore said. Many of these mussels became rare due to the amount of agriculture in North Carolina and the amount of sediment in streams.
Manley Fuller, vice president of conservation policy at the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, shared this sentiment.
“Often times species loss, or extinction, on a more localized level, is a consequence of human change to the environment,” he said. “Species loss is not in a vacuum, and it’s a reflection of what's going on with other environmental issues.”
Fuller referenced the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, another North Carolina species that gives a similar indication of its surrounding environment.
"These listed species are emblematic of their native habitats, which go beyond just the bird itself," Fuller said.
The revisions to the act also change the conditions in which species are deemed endangered or threatened. Now economic factors, such as resources used to maintain population levels as well as potential natural resource extraction, are also considered in addition to biological ones.
"(A species) should be listed whether it has a great economic impact or not," Fuller said.
This could mean trouble for species that require resources to just remain on the endangered list, like the red-cockaded woodpecker, Moore said. If these species were moved to the threatened list, they could lose all of this support.
Fuller said he was also concerned with revisions that appear to disregard species under threat of climate change.
"The term ‘foreseeable future’ was considered by a number of people as a red flag because it's kind of ambiguous, and they felt like that would be used by the agency to not consider species that are probably going to be affected by climate change," he said.
Weaver said it is now the responsibility of the citizens of North Carolina to protect species facing new threats due to the Trump administration’s revisions and to make sure their voices are included in decision making going forward.
“The most important thing for people to do is to stay up to date on what's happening in their areas," Weaver said.
Moore has another method for dealing with the now less effective ESA. Since a majority of endangered species live on privately owned lands, she said the only way to protect these species on private land is to incentivize the landowners.
"If we ask them as a public service to look after something like a rare species, that's at a cost to that landowner,” she said. “May be big, may be little, but if we, the public, think that's important, we should be able to put a value on that."
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