Under the proposals, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would change how the government decides which species should be protected as "endangered" and how parts of the country are established as critical for protecting a species at risk, prioritizing areas where an endangered species currently lives before granting protections for other areas.
Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the proposed changes are part of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's efforts to undercut wildlife protections.
"These proposals would slam a wrecking ball into the most crucial protections for our most endangered wildlife," Hartl said. "If these regulations had been in place in the 1970s, the bald eagle and the gray whale would be extinct today. If they’re finalized now, Zinke will go down in history as the extinction secretary."
Hartl also said the proposal would block the government from protecting habitats for species affected by climate change, which he said would essentially be a death sentence for polar bears.
"Ordinary Americans understand that many species of wildlife have drastically declined in recent years, and that if we are going to save wildlife, we have to let them return to places they used to roam. Denying imperiled wild animals that ability means they have no future," he said in a statement.
The Endangered Species Act lays out the process for how the Interior Department and Fish and Wildlife Service decide which species should be listed as endangered, how the government should work to restore that population, and if and when a species should be removed from a protected status. It has been considered a very effective law by conservation groups.
Republicans have proposed changes to give state governments a bigger role in decisions about endangered species and some industry groups, such as ranchers and mining companies, have said that the law creates too many burdens and that land protected for certain species sometimes conflict with their business. The changes proposed Thursday would remove a specific ban on considering the cost of protecting a species, though the law would still say that decisions should only be based on scientific data.
The changes proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would also revoke a policy that gave blanket protection to all species in a category like "threatened" or "endangered" and instead create specific rules for how each species listed as "threatened" or "endangered" should be handled.
"No two species are the same, and so by crafting species-specific 4(d) rules for threatened species, we can tailor appropriate protections using best available science according to each species’ biological needs," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Principal Deputy Director Greg Sheehan said in a statement. "By creating a clearer regulatory distinction between threatened and endangered species, we are also encouraging partners to invest in conservation that has the potential to improve a species’ status, helping us work towards our ultimate goal: recovery."
The proposal would also redefine a term that is central to the legal definition of a threatened species, which is one that is likely to go extinct in the "foreseeable future." The proposal would change that definition to say that "foreseeable future" only extends as far as agencies can "reasonably determine that both the future threats and the species' responses to those threats are probable," according to a press release.
Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told reporters he hopes members of the public will see "a very serious effort to lay out innovative ideas in improving the current interagency process" when they look at the proposal. He said that the agency received a good deal of public comments that the law that regulates endangered species, the Endangered Species Act, was unclear and had prompted legal confusion.
"I think the big picture of this year is that together these rules will be very protective and enhance the conservation of the species while at the same time, and the reason for that is we maintain all the legal standards of the act, and at the same time we hope they ameliorate some of the uncertainty," Bernhardt told reporters.
The proposals were developed through a partnership between the Interior Department and the Department of Commerce, which operates the National Marine Fisheries Service. Officials said more cooperation between the departments will create a more streamlined process and devote more resources to the species that need protection.
"I think the most important thing for the public is that this is going to take two agencies that sometimes don't coordinate with each other and bring them together," said Earl Comstock, director of policy and strategic planning at the Commerce Department.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, said the Trump administration is sending a clear signal that protecting wildlife is not on the agenda.
"These regulations are the heart of how the Endangered Species Act is implemented. Imperiled species depend on them for their very lives. Unfortunately, the sweeping changes being proposed by the Trump administration include provisions that would undercut the effectiveness of the ESA and put species at risk of extinction," Rappaport Clark said in a statement. “The proposal would eliminate a long-standing regulatory prohibition on considering economic impacts when listing species, remove blanket protections for threatened species, narrow consultation requirements and allow federal agencies to blind themselves to the broad consequences of their actions."
The changes to the Endangered Species Act announced Thursday will be open for 60 days of public comment.