Floridians love wildlife, especially manatees. The West Indian manatee, of which our Florida manatees are a subspecies, was one of the first species listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973. In 2017, citing increased numbers, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) downlisted the manatee’s status from endangered to threatened, a less protective designation. The manatees’ road to recovery under the Endangered Species Act should be a success story. However, events have caused concern that the population is struggling again. Unprecedented watercraft mortality, Red Tides, severe cold snaps, and relentless algal blooms fueled by nutrient pollution have killed large numbers of manatees and severely damaged essential habitat. We must remain vigilant or the populations may slide irreversibly backwards toward extinction.
In these uncertain times for Florida manatees, what is President Donald Trump’s Department of Interior doing? It is destroying the Endangered Species Act.
The Endangered Species Act is the world’s preeminent conservation law and our nation’s most effective law for protecting wildlife in danger of extinction — 99 percent of species that have received protections under the ESA are still with us today. In large measure due to the ESA, iconic species like the bald eagle, American alligator and brown pelican have recovered. And the ESA is incredibly popular — 90 percent of American voters support the law.
Yet the Trump Administration has created new rules that will severely weaken the ESA. What would have happened to the Florida manatee if these rules had been in effect when it was originally listed? In fact, they may not have been listed all. Currently, listing determinations are made solely based on science. The changes will now encourage the Fish & Wildlife Service to undertake economic analyses prior to listing any new species. These types of analyses can produce huge ranges in economic costs (from zero to millions of dollars for the same species in the same analysis). And they often only include direct management costs and ignore the tremendous value these species provide. I wonder if the cost of saving manatees would have been deemed too high in the 1970s?
The ESA requires that any agency involved in a federally permitted project must consult with Fish & Wildlife regarding potential impacts if the project affects a listed species or its critical habitat. The new rules significantly weaken these requirements. For example, under current regulations, if a developer wanted to build a federally permitted marina in designated critical manatee habitat, the agency granting those permits would have to consult with FWS. The consultation would examine questions such as whether the marina would shade and kill seagrass that manatees rely on for food, or whether the marina’s construction would result in increased boat traffic that would increase risks for collisions. It is often these additional impacts that result in the greatest harm to imperiled species. Under the new rules, however, the federal agency would not be required to consult regarding any activities or effects that are not under its control and responsibility. Instead, it could entirely ignore impacts from such things as increased boat traffic.
These are just a couple of examples of how damaging these rules would have been for manatees when they were first listed and how they may cause irreversible harm to manatees and other imperiled species in the future. And in Florida our wildlife is tied to our economy. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, in 2017 outdoor recreation in Florida created 485,000 jobs, $58.6 billion in consumer spending, generated $17.9 billion in wages and salaries and $3.5 billion in state and local taxes. As our wildlife suffers, so do our real estate and hospitality industries.
This is not the time to weaken protections. Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke oversaw the writing of these rules before he left in December, and he is now under federal investigation. Zinke was riddled with conflicts of interest and worked to benefit his industry campaign donors on land deals and oil and gas leasing. David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, the new secretary of interior, is also drowning in conflict of interest. By crafting these rules, he is acting on behalf of industry groups that find the Act a hindrance. The Department of Interior should work on behalf of the American people, not conflicted special interests.
I have dedicated much of my life to protecting Florida’s natural environment. I have and will continue to advocate to save our wildlife, especially the manatee. I am calling on Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio and Florida’s entire congressional delegation to reject these harmful regulations.
Bob Graham served as Florida’s governor from 1979 to 1987 and as U.S. senator from 1987 to 2005.