Biodiversity is as much a part of the health of our planet as a balanced diet is part of our own wellbeing. Biodiversity describes the variety within and between species, or within and between ecosystems; generally, the greater the diversity the healthier the system. The more different kinds of species are found in an ecosystem, the more resilient it is. Each different piece has its own immunities and strengths, protecting the system from being wiped out by a single disease, predator, or pollutant. Healthy ecosystems need this diversity, from soil microbes to apex predators like wolves, if one were to be removed, the void left can have disastrous effects on the individual ecosystem, which can affect the larger systems of which that is a part, ultimately threatening the global environment and affecting climate worldwide.
Earlier this August, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Trump administration announced they would be “simplifying” the regulation put forth by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and how it is enforced. The plan would overhaul the “blanket section 4(d) rule,” which extends the same protections to plants and animals listed as threatened as they do for endangered species. This change also makes it easier to remove species from protected lists. Businesses and land developers will now have a much easier time building on critical ecosystems and polluting in threatened species’ habitats, hastening their march towards becoming endangered.
This change is about more than just protecting bald eagles and hellbenders (they’re awfully cute, despite their name), but preserving much-needed biodiversity in the continental U.S., the loss of which has the potential for disastrous consequences around the world. Our climate has no borders (humans might want to take note). Biodiversity matters and protecting animals have further-reaching effects than simply saving lives, it preserves a delicate equilibrium that humans insist on throwing off balance.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA)
The endangered species act was originally passed in 1973 and in the past 45 years enjoys an impressive record of bringing back species like the humpback whale and the aforementioned bald eagle, to healthier population levels. It protects over 1,6000 species of plant and animal and extends protections to critical habitats.
When ecosystems lose apex predators, every part of the balance is thrown askew, ecosystems rely on a precarious balance between flora and fauna, and extinctions throw that into chaotic disarray. Loss of biodiversity is just as dangerous to the earth as global warming, which is why the Trump administration’s decision to declaw the Endangered Species Act matters.
The changes were first proposed in July of 2018, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Principal Deputy Director Geg Sheehan says the changes are “reducing the regulatory burden on the American people,” though, by people, he surely means businesses. The average American likely has felt no restrictions or burdens under the previous ESA, though individuals will now suffer thanks to a loss of biodiversity, from a lack of access to wild landscapes to increased pollution brought about by a given environment’s loss of ability to mitigate damages caused by those same pollutants.
The “simplification” serves only to make it easier to remove species still recovering from the brink of extinction from the protected list, which will make it easier for land development like drilling for natural gas and oil.
It’s worth noting that the people behind environmental deregulation and the dismantling of environmental agencies are not neutral parties and are rarely, if ever, scientists. Karen Budd-Falen, the deputy solicitor for fish, wildlife, and parks in the Department of the Interior, has called the ESA “a sword to tear down the American economy” and said the new rules would “ensure transparency and provide regulatory assurances and protection for both endangered species and the businesses that rely on the use of federal and private land.”
However, when focusing so single-mindedly on the health of businesses, one necessarily misses the point that our ecosystems, the earth that all life depends on, must come before any petty concerns for profits or economic growth.
Kai Chan, the global assessment lead author, and professor at the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia agrees. He told the Huffington Post:
“The present system [of environmental protection] has not worked well enough. Governments must get serious about reining in the power of business to regulate itself. We must also focus on supply chains. At present, nature is undermined every time we buy something through the raw materials used or the way goods are produced,” he said.
“Few governments fully understand the magnitude of the problems we face. Most deny the reality of the existential threat we face.”
The Science on Biodiversity
Recently, a three-year study by the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that “nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history — and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely.”
This report shows that wild populations across the planet are deteriorating, and if nothing is done to change that, up to one million species could be driven extinct thanks to human intervention.
“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson, who is also the former chief scientist at NASA. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
“The whole world is focused on climate change, but loss of biodiversity is just as important,” he continues. “You can’t deal with one without the other. There is a recognition now that biodiversity is an environmental issue, but it’s also about economics and development, too. We have to reform the economic system.”
We have an example of what loss of biodiversity can have on a small ecosystem in the case of Yellowstone National Park, where a return of wolves actually made the streams healthier. In the park, too few apex predators (wolves) led to a runaway elk population that devastated local vegetation, causing stream banks to erode. After wolves had been reintroduced to the region, vegetation was restored and the streams were recovering. Tree canopies were returning overhead, and birds and beavers returned. All that nature returned with the simple reintroduction of one species required to maintain the park’s natural balance.
Backlash and what you can do
In what’s become commonplace to this administration, they’re being taken to court. Eight environmental agencies including the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit on August 21st to prevent the changes that are set to take effect in September.
Drew Caputo, the vice president of litigation for lands, wildlife, and oceans at Earthjustice, says in a statement, “this effort to gut protections for endangered and threatened species has the same two features of most Trump administration actions: it’s a gift to industry, and it’s illegal. We’ll see the Trump administration in court.”
Kristen Boyes, another attorney at Earthjustice, says that “the language is designed specifically to prevent looking at the consequences beyond the present day, which is exactly what we need to be doing with respect to climate change. It’ goes entirely in the wrong direction.”
Furthermore, these proposed changes were made after receiving about 800,000 comments (a necessary step in the regulatory process, taking in comments from interested parties on both sides) most of which opposed the revisions to the ESA. But, as I mentioned earlier, this was never about doing what “the people” wanted. It’s about big business.
If you’re reading this and want to take action, you can act politically and in concert with your local ecosystem. Politically, you can contact your elected officials and let them know your thoughts about the ESA or support the organizations suing the administration over these changes. If you want to do your part in your own little slice of the climate, make sure you’re planting native plants and removing invasive species where you can. Invasives can likewise throw off the balance of a natural ecosystem by crowding out local plants that play a part by providing food, protection, or filling an otherwise important niche in your community.
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Feature image ofPresident Donald Trump before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on June 27, 2018. Photo: Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times.