Florida panther

Amid Biodiversity Crisis, Trump Administration Weakens Endangered Species Act

The Florida panther is among the United States’ most endangered mammals. There are only 120 to 130 left in the wild, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Visual: DenGuy/Getty Images

On Monday, United States Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced changes to the language regulating how the Endangered Species Act — the country’s landmark wildlife conservation law — is applied. Under the changes, it will be easier for regulators to delist and “down-list” the roughly 1,650 species currently protected by the law, and economic factors will be allowed to be considered alongside ecological criteria in the categorizing of a species as endangered or threatened.

Revisions were also made to how the law defines existential risks or threats to species — namely giving regulators more leeway in defining where the “foreseeable future” begins and ends — which will make it more challenging to factor in the uncertainty of climate change’s wide- and long-ranging effects.

The changes were roundly praised for their “efficiency,” “common sense values,” and “transparency” by Republican lawmakers and representatives of farming, energy, and construction organizations in a press release circulated by the Interior Department. But wildlife experts, ecologists, environmental organizations, and a number of Democratic lawmakers have denounced the changes. Many point out that the administration’s actions follow a major report from the United Nations demonstrating humanity’s unprecedented negative effects on global biodiversity.

This is not the first time the act, signed into law in 1973 by then-President Richard Nixon and credited with the recovery of species like the bald eagle and the grizzly bear, has found itself in the crosshairs of the Trump administration. Earlier attempts to significantly curb the law’s scope failed to be taken up by Congress, even when Republicans held a majority in both the House and the Senate.

Democrat Tom Udall of New Mexico, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which oversees the Interior Department’s budget, told The New York Times that members of his party are considering fighting the revisions by invoking the Congressional Review Act, a law that allows Congress to strike down rules established by federal agencies.

Also this week:

• There was a time when the media was accused of false balance in reporting on climate change — the practice of seeking out a contrarian voice to counter the prevailing view of scientists that climate change is real, and that humans are a key driver behind it. While it might seem that those days are long gone — particularly amid debates over whether coverage of climate change has become too alarmist and speculative — a new study published in the journal Nature Communications suggests that ill-informed contrarian viewpoints are still receiving disproportionate coverage. The analysis, spearheaded at the University of California, Merced, identified equal numbers of prominent climate skeptics, and top climate scientists — 386 in each group. The researchers then compared the two groups’ presence across roughly 100,000 digital and print media articles. The goal was to determine which class had higher public visibility: the contrarians, who very often have no climate science expertise at all, or the climate scientists considered to be most expert in the field. The results were sobering. Across all media, the contrarians enjoyed 49 percent more visibility. (Isolating the analysis to top, mainstream news sources, reduced the excess coverage to a percentage point.) “These results demonstrate why climate scientists should increasingly exert their authority in scientific and public discourse,” the researchers noted, “and why professional journalists and editors should adjust the disproportionate attention given to contrarians.” (Nature Communications)

• Earlier this year, Undark first reported the story of Ohio teenager Ethan Lindenberger, whose mother raised him without most recommended vaccinations, queried users of the web forum Reddit for advice on how best to get up to date on his own. Lindenberger’s decision launched him into the national spotlight as an advocate against vaccine misinformation, while it pushed his mother Jill and older brother Isaac further into the opposite direction. In March, the two appeared on the show of prominent anti-vaxxer and film producer Del Bigtree. But last Sunday, in an apparent about-face, the older Lindenberger announced his support for routine vaccinations, writing in a lengthy Facebook post that while he still supports individual choice, the evidence in support of vaccination had changed his mind. “I may not trust the government,” he wrote, “but empirical data and thousands of studies are convincing enough.” (Patheos)

• Now in its fifth week, the protest that has stalled construction of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii shows no signs of slowing down. But thanks to a deal brokered by state authorities, the site’s 12 existing astronomical observatories, which were forced to close last month after protesters blocked a key access road, have now resumed operations. Said astronomer Sarah Bosman of the month-long shutdown, “Every area of astronomy was affected by this.” Although astronomers at Mauna Kea are now getting back to work, the battle over the Thirty Meter Telescope remains in a stalemate. Mauna Kea is prized by astronomers for its clear skies but considered sacred ground by many Hawaiians. Since rallying to block the start of the telescope’s construction last month, demonstrators have signaled that they aren’t going anywhere: They’ve reportedly set up a camp, complete with shops and cafeterias, and received demonstrations of support from notable figures including the actor Dwayne Johnson and Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren. (Science)

• A team of scientists in Japan reported this week in PLOS Biology that they managed to successfully separate X-chromosome-carrying sperm in mice from those carrying Y-chromosomes. This allowed the scientists to influence whether a fertilized egg would result in a male (XY) or female (XX) offspring. The researchers acknowledged the obvious ethical issues that would arise should their methods be implemented in humans, but stated that their work could provide great benefits to the agriculture industry, as female dairy cows are generally far more profitable than males. In order to alter the odds of male and female offspring in mice, the researchers used a drug called Resiquimod to slow the swimming of X-chromosome-carrying sperm. Using the slower swimming group of sperm after the sorting technique was applied, the researchers produced an 81 percent female litter, while the faster swimmers produced a litter that was 83 percent male. While mice born from the experiments appeared normal and healthy, the team says more research is needed to determine if this method of interference results in any long-term health effects. (The Guardian)

• “From now on, we will no longer say that Ebola is incurable,” said Jean-Jacques Muyembe, director of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s National Institute for Biomedical Research on Monday. At a press conference, Muyembe announced that two experimental treatments for the virus were shown in clinical trials to boost survival rates in infected patients to the point that researchers are tentatively calling it a cure. The promising treatments work by infusing a combination of monoclonal antibodies — cloned immune cells that recognize, bind to, and neutralize pathogens like Ebola — into the patient’s blood. On Tuesday, two people treated with the drugs were released from a health center in Goma, DRC, and reunited with their families. Officials say they hope the events will mark a turning point in the DRC’s long and chaotic Ebola outbreak, which has officially claimed 1,794 lives since it began a year ago. (Multiple sources)

• And finally: A video of fish being fed into pneumatic tubes and sucked through like some surreal waterpark ride took the online world by storm this week — though neither the technology nor the problem it seeks to solve is particularly new. Manufactured by Seattle-based engineering company Whooshh Innovations, the fish tube shuttles salmon and other migratory fish over manmade roadblocks like hydroelectric dams using variations in air pressure. To keep the fish breathing and prevent them from sticking to the sides of the flexible tubes, water misters spray the passing animals at five-foot intervals. According to company representatives, the tubes can handle around five fish at once and can purportedly transport an entire school of migrating salmon in a few hours. As absurd as the tubes may seem, studies have shown them to be tentatively more successful than other methods — like fish ladders or trap and haul systems — at assisting species in overcoming the havoc dams have wreaked on their migratory routes and breeding patterns. (Vox)