Already fragile species could soon be in even greater trouble, as the Trump administration, Republican lawmakers, and industry lobbyists push to weaken protections granted by the Endangered Species Act.
Signed into law in 1973 by former President Richard Nixon, the act was designed to protect wildlife from extinction as a “consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.” While the vast majority of Americans support the legislation — credited with the recovery of the bald eagle and peregrine falcon — those behind the move to dial it back say the burden on industry is too great.
In a proposal released last Thursday, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Commerce outlined revisions that could make it easier to green light infrastructure projects by allowing economic impacts to be considered when determining whether or not a species should be protected. Another proposed change to the Endangered Species Act would scrap key provisions that apply similar protections to both threatened and endangered species. Going forward, protections for threatened species would be determined on a case-by-case basis.
During the last month, legislators have also introduced measures to reduce certain protections for the gray wolf and stop the endangered listing of the sage grouse, a strange-looking chicken-sized bird, in favor of opening up its habitat in the West to oil and gas interests.
While even environmental advocates agree the Endangered Species Act is in need of an overhaul, they say the focus should move away from protecting single species to considering ecosystems as a whole. But with President Trump in charge, and Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, any shift in that direction, if ever possible, is a long way off.
“I think the Endangered Species Act is endangered,” Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The New York Times. “They haven’t been able to do this for 20 years, but this looks like their one chance.”
In another show of the administration’s favoring of industry, documents mistakenly released by the Department of the Interior reveal that the agency dismissed the value of tourism and archaeological discoveries to emphasize logging, ranching, and other development activities when reviewing 27 of the country’s national monuments.
Also in the news:
• Amid a relentless drought hitting parts of the American West, volunteers are rushing to save wild horses dying of hunger and thirst. Since late spring, the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group has been hauling hay to locations around Phoenix, Arizona, where vegetation has disappeared and the animals are starving. In Colorado, meanwhile, groups are planning to deliver thousands of gallons of water per day to a herd of 750 parched horses. And, in areas of Utah and Nevada, federal land managers have begun emergency roundups. The problem facing wild horses, they say, stems from overpopulation, which is depleting resources. But advocates have balked at this reasoning, arguing that the agency is attempting to shrink horse populations in response to pressure from ranchers whose livestock compete with the horses for grazing land. Across the Pacific in New South Wales, Australia, a similar battle is being fought over a different iconic horse, the free-roaming feral brumby, but the roles are reversed: While scientists, environmentalists, and even animal welfare experts support a substantial cull of brumbies to stop the destruction they’re causing in the Kosciuszko National Park, the NSW government, citing the horse’s cultural heritage, isn’t having it. (Associated Press)
• Scientists with the European Space Agency (ESA) announced this week that they had discovered a 12-mile wide pool of liquid water beneath the crusty surface of the planet Mars. The Italian researchers, part of ESA’s Mars Express mission, said they had discovered the underground pool, located near the planet’s south pole, through radar imaging. Although they could not measure the depth of the body of water, the scientists said that it had to be at least three feet deep to produce the bright reflection seen by their instruments. The pool of water appears similar to underground reservoirs on Earth, such as those underlying Greenland and Antarctica, and reinforces the idea that conditions for life on Mars — especially microbial life — existed earlier and may continue even today. (The New York Times).
• The largest personal genetic testing company, 23andMe, announced plans on Wednesday to use its customer test results for the development of new drugs, entering into a 4-year partnership with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. Five million people in the United States have submitted samples of their DNA to 23andMe using its popular mail-in saliva test kit. By sequencing their genomes, the company provides information about personal disease risk and family genetic history. The new for-profit partnership with GSK will use these genome sequences to research and create new drugs, such as one the companies hope might treat Parkinson’s disease. With ongoing discussion about genetic privacy, the company is providing all customers with the option to opt-out. (NBC News)
• Once hailed as “heroic” for his work in uncovering the Flint Water Crisis, Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards is now suing a trio of activists for defamation, seeking $3 million in damages. Edwards’ suit centers on a letter posted online in May, alleging that he has harmed the Flint community with his public statements about the city. Signed by 60 Flint residents, the letter states, among other things, that Edwards has dismissed residents’ concerns about their water, distorted information about their hygiene habits related to shigella bacteria, and made declarations outside of his scientific expertise. In his complaint, Edwards puts responsibility for the letter on Flint resident Melissa Mays, along with activist Paul Schwartz and former colleague Yanna Lambrinidou, who the suit claims “entered into an ongoing civil conspiracy to attack and damage Edwards’ professional reputation.” (BuzzFeed News)
• The rise of so-called concierge medicine — one of several names for premium health care programs that allow well-heeled patients to buy their way into enhanced levels of care and more regular access to doctors — has been met with both cheers and jeers since its emergence in the 1990s. To some, it sounds like a revolutionary model of health care delivery that enhances the doctor-patient relationship. Others decry it as elitist at best, and unethical at worst. For all the debate, however, the model continues to expand, and its arrival earlier this year at the University of Michigan – under the awkward rubric “Victors Care” — has touched off a fierce on-campus debate over the pricey program’s justifications, its efficacy, and its ethical moorings. “In leafy Ann Arbor,” science writer Sara Talpos noted this week, “Victors Care went down like a Styrofoam cup at a zero-waste party.” (Undark)