This article will be focusing on the changes and decisions made by the Trump administration throughout his 4-year reign, focusing on the subject of wildlife. This includes partnerships, plans, rules, standards and targets relating to wildlife in the United States.
The Trump Administration & Wildlife
When the Trump administration first took office in 2017, the President and his many agencies began reviewing, revoking, revising, and rolling back a number of policies and regulations meant to protect wildlife in the United States. While this has been done in a number of areas of U.S. legislation, it has been detrimental to America’s wildlife. While the United States has a bounty of natural resources and a beautiful, vast array of wildlife, many of the country’s species can be classified as threatened or endangered as of 2020 (see Figures 2 & 3).
In 2018, President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation stated, “America’s wildlife are in crisis and now is the time for unprecedented on-the-ground collaboration. Fish, birds, mammals, reptiles and invertebrates are all losing ground. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to prevent these species from vanishing from the earth. Recovering wildlife is a win-win-win: strengthening our economy, improving public health, and making communities more resilient.” At the time, the following statistics were made available by NatureServe:
- 1/3 of American wildlife species are at increased risk of extinction
- More than 150 American species have already gone extinct
- Almost 500 additional species have not been seen in recent decades and are regarded as potentially extinct
- 70% of North America’s freshwater mussels are imperilled or already extinct
- Pollinator populations are dropping continuously – ex. Monarch butterfly populations in the Eastern US have dropped by 90% in the past 2 decades
- 30% of North America’s bat species have seen significant declines over the past 2 decades
- Amphibians are disappearing from their known habitats at a rate of 4% each year.
Wildlife in America requires help; species are increasingly at risk in all regions of the country, and across all categories of wildlife. The Wildlife Society stated, “This decline is not inevitable. Wildlife professionals in every state have action plans ready to go to conserve all wildlife for future generations, but we need the funding to turn this around.”
The Trump administration has undoubtably impacted the wildlife protections in the United States since he took office in 2017. In this article I will be discussing a number of changes made by the Trump administration and its agencies, and how it has or is expected to impact the country and it wildlife.
Seismic Airgun Blasts
In November 2018, the Trump Administration authorized the use of seismic air guns to find oil and gas formations deep underneath the Atlantic Ocean floor – reversing Obama administration policies and drawing criticism and outrage from activists and environmentalists – stating the practice can disturb and/or injure whales, sea turtles, and other wildlife. The National Marine Fisheries Service authorized permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act for 5 companies to use air guns for seismic surveys in the mid-Atlantic, from Delaware to central Florida. These surveys were part of President Trump’s bid to expand offshore drilling in the Atlantic; seismic surveys have not been conducted in the region for at least 3 decades. Seismic air guns fire intense blasts of compressed air into the seabed every 10-12 seconds for weeks or months at a time, to reflect back information about about buried oil and gas deposits, potential seafloor hazards, and sand and gravel resources for beach restoration.
These blasts are so loud that they can disturb or injure endangered whales and other sensitive marine mammals, and increase the risk of young being separated from their mothers. Administration officials said that under terms of the law that protect marine life, the permits wouldn’t allow companies to kill them, but would allow for the “harassment” of whales and sea turtles.
In March 2019, a Natural Resources subcommittee hearing was held on the subject, where President Donald Trump testified repeatedly that firing commercial airguns underwater every 10 seconds in search of oil and gas deposits over a period of months, would have little to no impact on the endangered animals – many of which use echolocation to communicate, feed, mate, and keep track of their offspring. Soon after, a hearing was held on the threat seismic testing poses to North Atlantic right whales. At this hearing, Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, Chris Oliver stated that President Trump’s argument was the reason why the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) gave 5 companies permission to conduct tests that could harm whales in the previous year.
As committee members engaged in heated debate, Representative Joe Cunningham reached for an air horn, put his finger on the button, and turned it in Oliver’s direction. “It’s fair to say seismic air gun blasting is extremely loud and disruptive… is that correct?” the congressman asked. “I don’t know exactly how loud it is. I actually never experienced it myself, ” Oliver responded. So, Cunningham gave Oliver a preview of the 120-decibel horn – filling the small committee room with the earsplitting sound. The conversation continued, with Cunningham inquiring about how disruptive the airhorn was in the room, stating that the sound from commercial airhorns could be up to 16,000x louder than his store-bought one. While the stunt pulled by Cunningham was the highlight of an ordinary subcommittee hearing, Democrats were unable to budge against the administration’s argument that there is no evidence illustrating seismic testing has ever killed or significantly harmed a whale in the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean, where the testing was occurring.
The most recent update on the subject is positive however, the federal government and fossil fuel industry announced at a legal hearing in October 2020 that seismic blasting will not be carried out in the Atlantic Ocean this year; a development welcomed by environmental groups whom lobbied forcefully on this matter. Oceana campaign director Diane Hosksins commented, “Communities can breathe a little easier knowing the Atlantic is now safe from seismic airgun blasting in 2020.” Confirmation on the pause came at a status conference for ongoing litigation over the issuance of Incidental Harassment Authorizations (IHAs) that would have allowed fossil fuel companies to ‘unintentionally harass marine mammals’ including the endangered North Atlantic right whale, humpback whale and bottlenose dolphin. Government attorneys said that the IHAs in question were set to expire at the end of November, and there is no legal or regulatory ability to extend them. Industry lawyers also indicated to the judge at the hearing that even if they were to issue new permits, it was unfeasible to begin seismic testing in 2020, especially considering the timely process associated with the acquisition of new permits.
Endangered Species Act
In August 2019, the Trump administration – via the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service – finalized changes to provisions of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This included significant alternations to how the Act will be applied, weakening the protections for threatened species, and will allow federal agencies to conduct economic analyses when deciding whether or not to protect a specific species. The provision allows for the streamlining of the wildlife protection law, regardless of consistent criticism from conservationists saying these changes will threaten at-risk species. Some believe that the aim of weakening the Act’s protections is just one of many moves made by the Trump administration to rollback the existing regulations barring access and ease to oil, gas, and coal production. According to Government Affairs Director for the Centre of Biological Diversity, Brett Hartl, “These changes tip the scales way in the favour of industry. They threaten to undermine the last 40 years of progress.”
According to the revision, the FWS is required to write specific rules for each threatened species, slowing their protection while conditions continue to worsen. These changes would also remove language that “guides officials to ignore economic impacts of how animals should be safeguarded,” as the original ESA protected species regardless of the economics of the area protected. However, the government insists that these changes should be viewed as updates that will ease the burden of regulations and increase the transparency on the protections required for a species, to see whether protections are warranted.
Now is not the time to be making these changes either. According to Statista data (see Figure 5), the number of threatened or endangered species in 2019 was astronomical in comparison to the levels reported in 2005.
One specific concern regarding the changes made by the Trump administration to the ESA includes the ambiguity of the phrase “foreseeable future.” Before this, the ESA defined an endangered species as one “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of a range” whereas a threatened species was one “likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.” While historically, the “foreseeable future” has been interpreted in broad terms, the new guidelines explicitly state “the term foreseeable future extends only so far into the future as the Services can reasonably determine that both the future threats and the species’ responses to those threats are more likely… the Services need not identify the foreseeable future in terms of a specific period of time.” By requiring these assessments be made on a case-by-case basis for each species, the administration has subtly allowed regulators to potentially ignore the far-reaching effects of systemic issues relating to global climate change.
Migratory Birds Treaty Act
In late 2019 and early 2020, the Trump administration made moves to drop the threat of punishment to oil and gas companies, construction crews, and other organizations that kill birds incidentally, arguing that businesses that accidentally kill birds should be able to operate without fear of prosecution. However, conservation groups argue that the proposed new regulation from the FWS would substantially weaken the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, threatening the safety of millions of birds. The Act was originally created in 1916 between the United States and Great Britain (on behalf of Canada) regarding the protection of migratory birds that move freely between the two countries.
For decades, the threat of fines and prosecution has helped convince industries to take steps to protect birds; but industry leaders and administration officials say they expected businesses to continue to voluntarily continue to protect bird habitats. Removing the threat of punishment, according to them, would bring regulatory certainty and eliminate legal disputes over whether or not the law covers birds killed unintentionally – whether from an oil spill or the blade of a wind turbine.
This change brings with it the cemented legal opinion that previous administrations had too broadly interpreted the law, and that only actions actually intended to kill birds should be forbidden. This interpretation has already resulted in a number of consequences for migratory birds. According to internal agency documents obtained by the New York Times, the Trump administration has discouraged local governments and businesses from taking precautionary measures in bird protection, and federal wildlife officials have essentially stopped investigating the majority of bird deaths. By the end of January 2020, 6 conservation groups and 8 states had already sued to block the underlying legal opinion. In addition, a group of former Interior Department officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations filed an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit.
On August 11, 2020, a federal court overturned the Trump administration’s reinterpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. When rejecting this interpretation, the court noted that the Act makes it unlawful to kill birds “by any means or in any manner” making it impossible for the administration’s interpretation to align with the plain language of the statute. This has been a significant win for environmentalists.
In March 2017, U.S. Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, issued an order overturning the Obama-era ban on the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on federal lands and in federal waters. Zinke, an avid angler and hunter, lifted the ban on his first day on the job, stating his aim was to “expand access to public lands and. increase hunting, fishing, and recreation opportunities nationwide.”
The Obama administration’s FWS had issued the lead ban on January 19, 2017, only one day before the inauguration of President Trump, to protect birds and fish from lead poisoning. The move was met with expectedly harsh criticism from the NRA, who called the ban Obama’s “final assault on gun owners’ and sportsmen’s rights.” Zinke also signed an order that would direct federal agencies to identify areas where recreation and fishing can be expanded and sought recommendations for expanding public access to these lands, and improving upon fishing and wildlife habitats.
In March 2019, Lynn Tompkins, founder and operator of Blue Mountain Wildlife in Pendleton, Oregon, became a spokesperson for the grassroots movement again lead ammunition, focusing on convincing hunters to use alternatives. In the 30 years that Tompkins has ran her centre, she has watched a number of birds have seizures, lose control, losing control of their flight and dying from lead poisoning. While she has nursed many birds back to health, she has unfortunately lost a great many too. In her community, it can be difficult; as guns are common and more often than not are infused with politics. “It goes from, ‘Hunt lead-free’ to ‘You’re trying to take my gun away,’” she said. ” We want people to hunt responsibly. And by the way, if you hunt with lead, you’re eating it. There’s no safe amount of lead.”
In this article I have discussed a number of the impacts that the Trump administration has had on America’s environmental legislation and protections, however, I would like to note that these are only a few of the changes made during Donald Trumps presidency that have impacted the nation’s wildlife. For more information on this subject, check out some of the links and videos available on the Additional Resources page.
Keep tuned for the next post in the series coming soon on the Trump administration’s impacts on the environmental progress that had been made in America prior to his inauguration in January 2017.