The Trump Administration, this week, did what Congress or any previous presidential administration couldn’t or wouldn’t: modernize federal agency processes under the 46 year-old Endangered Species Act.
On Monday, August 12, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced three new rules to ensure that the ESA better fulfills the purpose of species recovery, while making the law work better for landowners. These improvements matter because ESA restrictions hinder farming and ranching—something that’s understandable when it truly is needed to benefit a species. However, it’s extremely frustrating when the farmer or rancher knows the restrictions will do little for the critters they’re supposed to help, or when species remain on the endangered list long after the land is crawling with them.
One of the reforms announced this week eliminates the so-called blanket 4(d) rule that treated many species classified as threatened (at risk of becoming endangered) the same as those classified as endangered. If those categories are treated the same, what’s the use of having separate classifications? Going forward, the Fish and Wildlife Service will write species-specific rules concerning how best to help threatened species thrive.
Another rule ensures that delisting or reclassifying a species is based on the same factors that determine whether to list a species in the first place. Making all listing decisions on the basis of consistent criteria will help to direct resources to species in need by not expending them on species that already have recovered. The rule also ensures that listing decisions are based on the best available science, consistent with the law. Finally, this rule fixes something that really gets in the landowner’s craw: designating critical habitat where species do not exist, and possibly never have. This has been a real head-scratcher for many farmers and ranchers—a perfect example of regulations that don’t make sense and don’t work. Now, areas where threatened and endangered species are present will be up for critical habitat designation before unoccupied areas, and unoccupied areas will have to contain at least one physical or biological feature that’s essential to the species’ conservation. That just makes sense! As someone whose hairline is endangered, I’m glad I don’t have to scratch my head over that one any more.
A third rule will make the consultation process between federal agencies more efficient, and it sets a deadline for some consultations. It might be difficult to get excited about a change to a government process, but let me tell you this is huge: it means there could be quicker approvals for new pest management tools, for example, if the process for the Environmental Protection Agency to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service is more timely.
Some will predictably claim that these reforms “weaken” the ESA and species protection, and they will be wrong. When I see a way to make my farm more efficient, it strengthens my farm. Any business would update a 46 year-old process to make it work better. The Interior Department is bringing ESA rules into the 21st century and making improvements based on lessons learned over decades of working to conserve and recover species.
Leaders of several agricultural organizations, including Farm Bureau, were on hand for the announcement. It has been refreshing for those who are most affected by federal actions to be consulted and heard when those actions are considered and announced.
This week’s announcement of ESA reforms adds to a growing list of regulatory reform achievements that improve our ability to farm and ranch and keep food on America’s tables. We’ve worked for decades to help government leaders understand that ESA implementation and bureaucratic red tape had strayed far beyond common sense or the original intent of the law. We applaud the President and Secretary Bernhardt for these much-needed improvements.
Vincent “Zippy” Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Georgia, is the 12th president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.