Conservationists are sounding the alarm this week that the Biden administration is planning to weaken protections for iconic endangered species, including the Whooping Crane, Florida panther, and Florida Key deer.
The claim, which I have to say is shocking and disheartening, is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to downlist the crane and deer from endangered to threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, and it plans to delist the panther apparently by claiming it is not a distinct taxonomic subspecies and therefore not eligible for ESA listing.
I learned this news on Monday afternoon while I scrolled Twitter waiting for an eye doctor appointment. I thought maybe I really do need to get my eyes checked, but then I read this press release from the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) as well as a scathing letter addressed to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and other officials in Washington.
In the press release, Brett Hartl, the CBD’s government affairs director, says:
“It’s a gut punch that the Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking to weaken protections for Whooping Cranes and key deer, when both species’ homes could be underwater in decades. And it’s appalling that the Fish and Wildlife Service is even considering moving forward with a Trump-era plan to reduce protections for the Florida panther just to enrich special interest real-estate developers.”
I asked Hartl to explain how he knows the government is planning to take these actions, and he pointed to three notices that the Interior Department posted recently to a website of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the Office of Management and Budget. The notices bear the following titles:
“Basically, federal agencies do not submit what are known as a ‘regulation information number’ or ‘RIN’ unless they intend to take action on something,” he explains.
“And as a practical matter, the Whooping Crane is currently listed as endangered. So, the Fish and Wildlife Service can only lower protection since there is no option for greater/additional protection – the Endangered Species Act only protects species as either endangered or threatened (weaker status), so it can only be reduced.
“We do not know when an actual proposed rule will come out, and are pretty dumbfounded by this, as it is clearly not warranted.”
Hartl is absolutely correct that downlisting is not warranted. For many, many years, the joint goals stated by the U.S. and Canada for downlisting the crane include having the eastern migratory population at a population of 120 individuals and 30 breeding pairs or that the population that breeds in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park and winters in Texas at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge should have a population of at least 1,000 birds.
Today, the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population sits at 506 cranes while the eastern migratory group numbers 79. The nonmigratory Louisiana population includes 72 individuals.
The threat of sea-level rise along the Texas coast means the future for the only naturally wild Whooping Crane flock is uncertain to say the least. As I noted in a BirdWatching cover story about the bird in 2019: “A 2014 study found that 23 to 54 percent of the crane’s habitat will be inundated by rising waters by the year 2100.”
‘A total dodge’
After reading Hartl’s allegations, I thought that perhaps the Interior Department would have a valid explanation for posting the notices with RINs at the Office of Management and Budget. I asked a couple of sources within the Fish and Wildlife Service for answers, and I specifically asked if they plan to downlist the Whooping Crane. They did not directly answer that question, but a spokesperson with the agency’s public affairs office in Texas responded with this statement: “As required by law, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regularly reviews the status of all listed species under the ESA. These reviews help ensure we are using the best available science in our conservation work and that the level of protections is appropriate. We plan to review the status of the whooping crane in 2022.”
I shared this with Hartl, who pointed out that FWS “already started the status review this year and put out a request for information in May.
“This is a total dodge on their part because (and again this is wonky), you don’t send a notice to OIRA/OMB for the unified agenda to just do a routine status review (which they already started). An agency ONLY sends a notice to OIRA when it intends to take action. They want to downplay this as routine, but it isn’t.
“Unfortunately, we have seen this before. The agency tries to act all nonchalant and then, all of a sudden, jam everyone up with an announcement to downlist or delist.”
Similar stories for the deer and panther
The feds’ apparent plans for the Florida panther and Florida Key deer are just as worrying.
The deer, a small cousin of the widespread white-tailed deer, is found only on a couple of the southernmost Florida Keys. Its herd numbered around 950 in 2017. Around 5-15% of the population is lost each year due to vehicle collisions, and in 2016 and 2017, an infestation of New World screwworm killed 135 of the animals.
Just today, the Endangered Species Coalition and other environmental groups issued a report about 10 species around the U.S. that are already imperiled by climate change, and the Florida Key deer was one of the 10.
“Most of Big Pine Key — the biggest stronghold of the Florida Key deer — will be under water in decades because of sea-level rise caused by climate change,” CBD’s press release says, “and the deer’s habitat is increasingly imperiled by more frequent and more intense hurricanes.”
Regarding the Florida panther, the CBD says:
“Records released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request show that the Fish and Wildlife Service regional office decided to begin the process of reducing panther protections in 2018 by downlisting them to threatened. That was years before the agency completed an official five-year review or species status assessment, neither of which are finished yet.
“There are only approximately 200 Florida panthers in the world — that’s about half the size of the Siberian tiger population, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature ranks as critically endangered.”
In the letter from Hartl to Secretary Haaland and other Interior officials, he refers to a 2018 meeting about the panther in which two paths to ending protections for the panther were discussed:
“In the first pathway, complete a Status Assessment, and then ‘reach a conclusion of taxonomic error’ for the panther to allow delisting. In the second pathway, complete a five-year review, conclude taxonomic error and evaluate as a Distinct Population Segment (‘DPS’), where the Service concludes that the species is threatened, not endangered. Simply put, Service officials have decided the outcome in advance — to reduce or eliminate protection for the panther — and have given marching orders to staff to reach the predetermined outcome that this administration is now facilitating. This is not how the scientific process works. Science is an independent process with no predetermined outcome or preordained conclusion, conducted via a transparent process with independent peer review. The only conclusion from the Service’s action here is that it is bowing to developers in southern Florida who want to destroy habitat, build more panther-killing roads, and continue developing fossil fuel resources without the headache of protecting Florida’s natural heritage.”
Trump policies live on under Biden
To confirm that Hartl’s reading of the actions by Interior and the FWS are accurate, I checked with officials from other conservation groups.
Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition, confirmed that the moves to downlist or delist these species — which began during the Trump administration — are continuing under President Joe Biden.
She noted that the OIRA/OMB announcements of potential downlisting in advance “indicates there’s a pre-determined outcome. This is not a normal way of doing business under the Endangered Species Act.”
These developments are “definitely a cause for concern,” Huta added.
She also noted that these moves continue a pattern by the Biden administration. In its first year, it has not taken strong steps to protect other charismatic megafauna such as the gray wolf or the West Indian manatee, which is undergoing a population collapse in Florida.
“Conservationists may have had expectations that the Biden administration would be different,” she said. “It just shows that we need to be vigilant and ask for accountability about what’s happening with biodiversity.”
“The Fish and Wildlife Service is thumbing its nose at President Biden’s directive to federal agencies to follow the best available science in all decisions, especially those relating to climate change. We’d hoped that the horrific anti-wildlife tactics so often employed during the Trump era had ended, but it appears we were wrong.”
Even before the Trump administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service routinely ranked among the worst agencies in terms of concerns about political interference undermining the scientific process. In a 2015 survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists, 73% of responding Fish and Wildlife Service scientists reported that the level of consideration of political interests was too high.
Downlisting would set ‘a terrible precedent’
The Whooping Crane has been listed as endangered since 1967, before the current Endangered Species Act even existed. To this day, it remains the rarest of the 15 crane species on Earth. Its recovery since its low-point in the 1940s — thanks to the work of countless conservation professionals and volunteers, government agencies, zoos, nonprofits, and others — has been an inspiration to birders and nonbirders alike. It is without a doubt one of the faces of the Endangered Species Act.
I wondered what it would mean if it were to be downlisted now to threatened — well before basic recovery goals have been achieved.
“The results would be subtle and somewhat hard to predict,” Hartl says. “Under Section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act, threatened species receive less protections than endangered species do, and the FWS can tailor protections as they see fit, allowing some types of harm to occur that might otherwise be prohibited for an endangered species. So, for example, as a hypothetical, they could say that power line collisions no longer have to be addressed/mitigated compared to before, but it is hard to predict.
“Similarly, under Section 7(a)(2), all federal agencies must ensure their actions do not harm Whooping Cranes through the consultation process. A threatened species allows a higher tolerance of harm compared to an endangered species, meaning less mitigation is needed to address possible impacts from a wide sweep of actions. In other words, cranes would still be protected from the most severe harms, they wouldn’t lose any land that has been set aside for their protection, but they would be deprioritized and subject to a higher level of acceptable harm and risk, all of which is potentially detrimental to further growth and increases of the population.”
Steve Holmer, American Bird Conservancy’s vice president of policy, adds: “A change of status for the Whooping Crane would be premature until the birds reach a safer population level. Threats to crane habitat conditions due to climate change and renewable energy development are growing, not shrinking. It would be unwise to jeopardize this amazing decades-long recovery effort.”
Huta of the Endangered Species Coalition pointed to specific and wider implications for changing the crane’s status.
“It would set a terrible precedent for how species are downlisted and deciding when a species is meeting recovery goals,” she says. “We need to keep a high standard. There should be enough individuals in the population to maintain the population and to fulfill their ecological role.”
She adds that downlisting now would not only be “dangerous for the crane, but it would also be dangerous for how we view the recovery for all endangered species.”
“Members of Congress should know that their constituents care about these decisions, and that the members should weigh in with the administration to share their concerns,” Huta says.
I will note that phone calls are said to be more effective than emails or letters in getting the attention of your elected representatives.