Sea Turtle Release (copy) (copy) (copy)

The threatened loggerhead sea turtle could lose protections under a new federal proposal to streamline the Endangered Species Act. File/Brad Nettles/Staff 

The loggerhead sea turtle, the right whale, the bald eagle and wood stork — these are among three dozen federally designated animals and plants in South Carolina that could lose vital protections under the latest environmental proposal by the Trump administration.

The U.S. Department of the Interior on Thursday proposed ending automatic protections for various threatened animal and plant species and limiting habitat safeguards meant to shield recovering species from harm.

Department officials said the new rules would advance conservation by simplifying and improving how the landmark Endangered Species Act is used.

"These rules will be very protective," said U.S. Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, adding the changes also will reduce the "conflict and uncertainty" associated with many protected species.

Conservationists countered it would do the opposite.

"This is a wholescale assault on the Endangered Species Act and the protections it provides to endangered species," said attorney Sierra Weaver with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Among the rules that could be dropped is a requirement that federal industry permitting agencies consult with wildlife agencies and scientists before making permit decisions, according to the conservation group Earthjustice. That would include permits for oil and natural gas exploration off the Carolina coast, where the right whale is on the verge of extinction.

Another rule that could be dropped is restrictions on "take," the incidental disruption or killing of animals listed as threatened rather than endangered, according to the American Bird Conservancy. That would include turtle and eagle populations, as well as the visiting manatee.

The proposal also would make it easier to eliminate critical habitat protected areas, said Steve Holmer, conservancy policy director.

“Critical habitat is essential for maintaining and recovering species, but this change would allow the loss of habitat to occur drip by drip,” Holmer said. “Eventually there could be little critical habitat left.”

The proposal now goes to a 60-day public comment period. It joins an expanding range of administration moves to dial back land, sea and wildlife protections under the purview of the Interior or Commerce departments, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Conservation groups are mounting legal challenges to the moves.

"We'll be looking at this," Weaver said.

More than 700 animals and almost 1,000 plants in the U.S. are shielded by the law. Hundreds more are under consideration for protections. Fewer than 100 species have been taken off the threatened and endangered lists, either because they were deemed recovered or, in at least 10 cases, went extinct.

At least 36 animals and plants found in South Carolina are federally designated as threatened or endangered. They also include the red-cockaded woodpecker and nearly extinct white fringeless orchid. Among the others are a salamander, mussel, bat, flowers, a fern and a lichen.

Wildlife advocates and Democratic lawmakers said such moves would speed extinctions in the name of furthering the administration's anti-environment agenda. 

"It essentially turns every listing of a species into a negotiation," said Noah Greenwald with the Center for Biological Diversity. "They could decide that building in a species habitat or logging in trees where birds nest doesn't constitute harm."

Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have been strong advocates for oil and gas drilling and other types of development, frequently criticizing environmental policies they say hinder economic activity.

But Zinke has also sought to portray himself as a conservationist in the vein of President Teddy Roosevelt who will protect the nation's natural resources.

The administration's proposals came amid longstanding criticism of the Endangered Species Act by business groups and some members of Congress. Republican lawmakers are pushing legislation to enact broad changes to the law, saying it hinders economic activities while doing little to restore species.

One of the chief architects of that effort, U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, said the administration's proposals were "a good start" but indicated that more work was needed.

"The administration is limited by an existing law that needs to be updated," Barrasso said. "The changes I have proposed will empower states, promote the recovery of species, and allow local economies to thrive."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.