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Op-Ep: Why we're changing the rules on endangered species

Opinion by David L. Bernhardt is Secretary of the Interior and Wilbur Ross is Secretary of Commerce.

Jointly implemented by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is one of our nation's most important wildlife conservation laws. This act requires us to use the best scientific data and commercial information available to identify and address the threats facing imperiled species and to facilitate their recovery.

We are committed to conserving threatened and endangered species and protecting the nation's rich biological diversity for future generations. To best serve this goal, we have taken on the task of improving implementation of the ESA to make the law work better for species of concern and the American people.

The ESA has had some notable successes since its passage more than 40 years ago, as bald eagles and peregrine falcons, once rare in the lower 48 states, are fully recovered and species like the California condor and black-footed ferret have been brought back from the brink of extinction. However, as we look at our record of delisting species from these categories and the law's track record for species recovery, there is clearly room for improvement.

Implementation of the ESA -- whereby the FWS and NMFS actively identify plants, animals and fish that may need the Act's legal tools to aid in their recovery and to protect their habitat -- has, at times, generated frustration and disagreement among private landowners, states, regulated industries, and environmental advocates. This is particularly the case in western states where the ESA and the impacts associated with listing certain species -- such as habitat restoration, requirements for various human activities like farming and ranching, and consistent monitoring -- can become lightning rods for controversy. We can do better for both our wildlife and the people asked to sacrifice for their conservation.

Nearly two years ago, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Commerce began considering improvements to the internal rules the federal government uses to put into practice the Endangered Species Act with the intention of making them more efficient and effective. There was a need to facilitate easier and faster engagement across federal agencies, encourage individuals and communities to support conservation, and provide the maximum degree of regulatory predictability. We approached this undertaking with reverence for the ESA's goals and a commitment to advancing them.

We have now published final updates and clarifications to these regulations. Our work has been subject to a robust, transparent public process as evidenced by the tens of thousands of comments we received from the public, members of Congress and representatives from every level of government.

The previous regulations utilized by the Department of the Interior often took a one-size-fits-all approach to species protections, making species population recovery more difficult. Treating threatened and endangered species the same failed to consider the specific needs of unique species and failed to generate the private and public support that is so often critical to getting the threatened species on the road to recovery. The threat levels to these species are not all the same, but by categorizing them as though they are, we can fail to provide the support to their habitats that will best facilitate population growth.

The revised regulations now follow the two-tiered classification system Congress established for "endangered" and "threatened" species. Congress intentionally created this system to ensure the most stringent protections are applied to species that are considered "endangered." A major benefit of this approach is that it gives the Department of the Interior and the Department of Commerce the discretion to tailor unique rules to help recover threatened species populations and facilitate delisting -- removing them from the threatened or endangered species list. NMFS' regulations already follow this model; we are now bringing the Department of the Interior's regulations into conformity to best promote species recovery.

Additionally, legal challenges to the old regulations created some confusion as to what requirements a species must meet to be removed from the endangered species list. While it was possible to delist, understanding when those requirements were met was unnecessarily complicated. The new regulations reinforce the statute: the same standards apply to list and de-list a species.

Population recovery efforts should be recognized and celebrated, not used to keep species on the list in perpetuity. Once we get these species out of the intensive care unit, the conservation management strategies should be returned to the capable hands of the states, so we can best direct our resources toward the species that still need critical support.

One of our primary responsibilities under the ESA is to consult with other federal agencies to help ensure that their actions are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of endangered or threatened species. But complicated interagency consultations can take years to complete, which can hinder a sister agency and its constituents. These new regulations improve the consultation process by clarifying the standards used to evaluate actions that may affect species and by strengthening alternative consultation mechanisms to allow for greater creativity and flexibility when engaging with other agencies.

The new regulations recognize that the ESA's ultimate goal is species recovery and that goal is best advanced by tailoring appropriate protections to particular species' biological needs, based on the best available science. With this goal in mind, resources can be used more efficiently and financial support can go to where it will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation.

Our guidepost has been President Trump's overarching effort to reduce regulatory burden without sacrificing protections for threatened and endangered species. The Trump Administration is committed to achieving the ESA's conservation goals and to improve the law's implementation.

Unilateral actions by the federal government will not save the more than 2,300 species that are currently listed as threatened or endangered. The majority of the habitats that are critical to these species' survival are located on private land. The American conservation model depends on federal partnerships with states, landowners, conservationists, and sportsmen. Only by working together with each interested party bringing its expertise and resources to the table will we be able to accomplish the ESA's purpose of conserving threatened and endangered species and protecting the ecosystems upon which they depend.