AILSA CHANG, HOST:
For 45 years, the Endangered Species Act has helped to keep struggling plant and animal species from going extinct. But the landmark law has also grown politically divisive. Republicans and industry groups say it hurts economic growth. Congress is weighing a number of bills that would limit the Endangered Species Act. And now the Trump administration is proposing changes that some environmental groups say would undermine the Act altogether. NPR's Nathan Rott is here with us to sort through all of this. Hey, Nate.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey.
CHANG: So this is a law that's been around for a long time. Why is all of this happening now?
ROTT: Well, Republicans are in power. And as we said, you know, for a long time, they've wanted to see this law changed, and this is potentially an opportunity to do that. And, you know, the truth is there are even some Democrats and wildlife groups that also would say that the act needs updated.
ROTT: The world has changed a lot in 45 years. You don't need to tell anyone. And I think that there's been a bit of hesitance on either side for a long time to bring this up because if you open it to change, there's a fear that you might not actually get what you want.
CHANG: So the Trump administration is looking to change not the law itself but regulations around it, right? What are they looking to do?
ROTT: A lot (laughter). The proposal is a super-technical 100-plus-page document.
ROTT: So I'm not going to go into all of the details. I'll just touch on a couple of the items that seem to be getting the stiffest pushback. The first would end the practice of treating threatened species the same as endangered. This proposal says that threatened species could still get some of those protections as endangered, but it would be determined on a case-by-case basis. It won't be de facto anymore. The second would allow the economic consequences of a species' protection to be taken into consideration during a listing. The decision would still ultimately be determined by the best available science, but the cost of that would also be considered.
CHANG: So critics are saying these proposed changes weaken or gut the Endangered Species Act. How accurate is that?
ROTT: Well, there are certainly some changes here that are being proposed that would make it more difficult for species to get protection in some cases. But a lot of this will really depend on how the changes would be implemented. Will threatened species not be able to get those protections? Will the administration give more weight, for example, to oil and gas and energy companies who want to drill in a place that others want to be when we're talking about protected habitat? I asked Greg Sheehan, the acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, about this, and he defended the administration.
GREG SHEEHAN: They've not asked us at all to quit worrying about these species, to stop having protections. But they have said, let's make sure that we keep a balance and look at not having overreaching provisions on our society and our local communities and our private landowners in America.
ROTT: The concern here obviously for environmental groups is that under the current administration, you know, that balance could favor industry.
CHANG: OK, so what is it that wildlife groups want to see?
ROTT: You know, I think it depends on the group. I think some would say they don't want to see any change to the Endangered Species Act. By many measures, it has been a hugely successful legislative tool to stop extinction. But there's a bigger issue here that I think is also why we're - a lot of this is coming up in discussion, and it's that the ESA can only do so much. The challenges to wildlife in this country are growing - climate change, human development. Collin O'Mara, the head of the National Wildlife Federation, talked about this with me earlier today.
COLLIN O'MARA: One out of every 3 wildlife species in this country is either at risk or vulnerable to extinction in the coming century. We have a crisis that we need - that needs solutions. Like, the status quo is basically just managing decline of specie populations that we all care about.
ROTT: So what he would like to see is more discussion, more resources into sort of front-loading this and to helping wildlife before they're threatened, before they're endangered. And so he - there's - there are some proposals in Congress that would help to try to address that, to try to bring funding and try to bring that to the forefront. And I think he and others are hopeful that that will be a little less controversial and a little less heated than the conversations about the Endangered Species Act.
CHANG: All right, that's NPR's Nate Rott. Thanks so much.
ROTT: Thank you.
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