Endangering the Ark

Gray Wolf. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

This week the Trump administration announced new rules that effectively gut the Endangered Species Act. This move is a disastrous blow to a natural heritage that is increasingly under threat, an abdication of our moral responsibility to future generations – and another giveaway to big corporations and ideologues who will ultimately be on the wrong side of history.

The rules would make it harder for the Department of Interior to grant imperiled species the protections needed to prevent extinction, while facilitating removal of protections for species that are currently listed. By allowing economic considerations to weigh heavily in the balance for decisions regarding whether to protect species or not — a purview previously limited to science — Interior is elevating the profit motives of corporations above what should be our sacrosanct obligations as stewards of creation.

The rules also weaken requirements to consider the impacts of climate change, which is threatening not just a host of plant and animal species, but also humans and, indeed, the entire planet. In a separate, complementary move, last spring the U.S. Geologic Survey announced it would limit scientists’ evaluation of “foreseeable” future climate impacts to 2040, only 20 years hence. Given that the impacts of climate warming unfold over many decades, that time horizon is far too short to give a useful picture of foreseeable conditions in time to avoid disaster.

In the case of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears,the severity and suddenness of impacts from climate change have been shocking, including the collapse of our high-elevation whitebark pine forests as mountain pine beetles invaded habitats previously protected by frigid winter temperatures.  Climate change is also partly to blame for the tanking of Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake, although predation by illegally introduced nonnative Lake trout has taken a huge toll.

We also stand to lose another critical Yellowstone grizzly bear food, army cutworm moths. The moths forage on the nectar of alpine tundra flowers which will be driven off the top of the mountains, along with alpine environments, by warming temperatures. Serviceberries, buffaloberries and chokecherries will also likely be hammered.

The government’s failure to aggressively curb greenhouse gases will ensure more devastating surprises for grizzlies and our planet far beyond 2040. Making matters worse, Trump’s new ESA rules makes it easier for industries to exploit the public lands that we all hold dear. Right now, we still have options for restoring our natural heritage, including enough habitat in the Northern Rockies to reconnect the long-isolated grizzly populations, but these opportunities could soon be lost.

Hard-won gains also stand to be lost. Even if last year’s restoration of ESA protections for Yellowstone grizzlies is upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, grizzly bears will likely be prey to another politically-motivated move by the Trump Administration to again strip protections and allow trophy hunting, abetted by a newly-weakened ESA.

The Great Bear is hardly alone. According to a recent United Nations report on the state of global biodiversity, 1 million species worldwide are at risk of extinction, many within a few decades. Extinctions are happening at a rate at least 1,000 times greater than could be considered normal. In just the last 50 years we have lost 60% of all the wild animals that once roamed our Earth — to a burgeoning human population, climate change and greed.

A precautionary approach is vital if we hope to leave future generations with anything approximating a healthy environment. Indeed, the precautionary principle was built into the bones of the ESA, which codifies a national commitment to our natural heritage. The law has been enormously successful. Ninety percent of species that have been granted protections have not gone extinct.

Once again, the Trump administration is throwing caution to winds to promote short term private profits at the expense of long-term public benefit. In so doing, it is giving a green light to the destruction of the Ark.

The grizzly is an ecological canary in a coal mine — a measure of the health of our ecosystems. Its fate is connected to our own. We allow the destruction of endangered species at the peril of our souls and society, not to mention future generations.

Louisa Willcox is a longtime grizzly bear activist and founder of Grizzly Times. She lives in Montana.