Hawaii leaders blast new rules on endangered species

  • A Hawaiian sea turtle yawns while resting on the shoreline in North Kona. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

HONOLULU — Hawaii flora and fauna, already under stress from climate change, will have fewer protections under new Trump administration rules that weaken the Endangered Species Act.

The rules, which are expected to take effect next month, were blasted by local environmental attorneys and members of Hawaii’s Democratic congressional delegation Monday as a giveaway to private industry.

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“It is a cartoonish level of corruption that the Trump administration puts coal and oil lobbyists in charge of natural resources,” tweeted U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz. “This is about crooked people getting rich by destroying the planet’s ability to sustain life as we cherish it.”

President Donald Trump has appointed numerous former lobbyists from the fossil fuels industry to key positions within his administration, including David Bernhardt, who leads the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Bernhardt said the rules are designed to increase transparency and modernize the 45-year-old conservation law while ensuring the effective recovery of the rarest species, in a statement released Monday announcing final revisions to the rules.

The new rules make it easier to remove species from the endangered species list and weaken protections for threatened plants and animals. They make it easier to encroach upon critical habitat for protected species and make it more difficult for regulators to factor in the effects of climate change when making decisions about protecting wildlife.

The rule changes were applauded by some lawmakers, though not ones representing Hawaii.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) cheered the Interior’s move but said the department did not go far enough in its changes.

“We must modernize the Endangered Species Act in a way that empowers states, promotes the recovery of species, and allows local economies to thrive,” Barrasso said in a press release.

The changes also strike language from the law that instructs regulators to ignore economic impacts when making decisions about wildlife protections, while allowing for economic assessments.

“For the first time, the Trump administration wants to publish with listing decisions what the economic impact of that is going to be, opening the door for making political and economic decisions in place of scientific decisions,” said David Henkin, an environmental attorney with Honolulu’s Earthjustice. “And so one can imagine here in Hawaii, with development pressure and things like that, people pushing back hard against listings based on pocketbook issues rather than science — which is what the act is supposed to be focused on.”

Hawaii, often referred to as the “endangered species capital of the world,” has more than 500 species that are designated as threatened or endangered, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. About one-third of all species listed nationally can be found in Hawaii.

Most of the listings in Hawaii are for plants, such as the silversword and sandalwood. Among the dozens of protected animals are the Hawaiian monk seal, sea turtles, palila birds and io, or Hawaiian hawk.

Henkin said that the new rules will mainly affect future listings.

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Marti Townsend, director of the Hawaii Sierra Club, said the rules are the “latest example of how the Trump administration favors corporate profit above all, to the detriment of our communities and the natural environment we all rely on.”

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono tweeted that Hawaii’s endangered species demand attention, “not the padding around industry’s pockets,” while Congressman Ed Case said he would work in Congress to reverse the rules.

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