When a South Carolina Electric & Gas crew destroyed an active osprey nest atop a power pole in Mount Pleasant more than a year ago, federal wildlife officials sheepishly explained that the utility wouldn’t face punishment because rules under the Endangered Species Act were being rolled back.
On Monday, the Trump administration finalized those rules, making it harder to protect endangered species and easier for businesses to get around wildlife regulations — the kind that helped save from extinction national icons such as the bald eagle, grizzly bear and alligator.
That’s bad news for the Lowcountry as well as the rest of the country, especially in light of a recent U.N. report that said 1 million animal and plant species face extinction because of human activity.
The new rules, which take effect in 30 days, change how federal agencies enforce parts of the 46-year-old Endangered Species Act, making it easier for some recovering species to be delisted and helping clear the way for mining, oil drilling or other activities.
Scrapped is language that prohibits the consideration of economic factors when deciding if a species should be protected. Scrapped is the rule that extends to “threatened” species such as sea turtles the same protections as “endangered” species.
The changes also will limit how federal regulators consider the effects of climate change on endangered species. Another revision will affect how federal agencies set aside habitat critical for the survival of certain species.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the revisions “fit squarely within the president’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals.”
Mr. Ross has a point. Indeed, the Endangered Species Act has been used to block or delay developments on behalf of obscure plant and animal species. For example, the threatened snail darter, a fish, delayed the construction of a dam on the Little Tennessee River shortly after then-President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law in 1973.
But it has also helped save many majestic creatures such as the red wolf, peregrine falcon and gray whale, all of which have increased in population. Fifty-four of roughly 1,600 endangered species have been delisted due to recovery over the past four decades.
Conservationists have rightly decried the changes and vowed to fight the Trump administration in court. At least 10 attorneys general have joined with environmental groups in opposing the revisions.
“For animals like wolverines and monarch butterflies, this could be the beginning of the end,” Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity told USA Today.
Indeed, it’s prudent to err on the side of caution when weighing man’s wants and needs against those of nature. The administration must be careful not to trample safeguards that have served us well for many years.