Trump Administration Overhauls Protections for Endangered Species

The Departments of the Interior and Commerce have unveiled significant changes to the regulations that implement the Endangered Species Act (ESA), altering how the law will be enforced in the future. The revisions will make it easier for regulators to delist species from the endangered species list and remove automatic protections for threatened species.

“The revisions finalized with this rulemaking fit squarely within the President’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals,” said Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. “These changes were subject to a robust, transparent public process, during which we received significant public input that helped us finalize these rules.”

ESA was enacted in 1973 with the goal of preventing plants and animals from becoming extinct. The law is credited with successfully saving the gray whale, the grizzly bear, and the bald eagle. The Trump Administration first proposed in July 2018 changes to the enforcement of the ESA that would make it harder to provide protections for certain species.

The rule changes were finalized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on August 12, 2019. The new regulations apply to sections of the ESA that deal with adding or removing species from the protected list and designating critical habitats. The new rules tighten the definition of “foreseeable future” for making crucial ESA decisions. This refers to the policy that requires regulators to consider whether a species is in danger of extinction or is at risk of becoming endangered within the “foreseeable future” when making a listing decision. Under the new policy, foreseeable future “extends only so far into the future as the [USFWS and NMFS] can reasonably determine that both the future threats and the species’ responses to those threats are likely.” Regulators will now have significant discretion in determining what foreseeable future means on a case-by-case basis. “We’ll look out in the future only so far as we can reliably predict and not speculate,” said Gary Frazer, Assistant Director for ecological services at USFWS.

The new regulations will for the first time allow regulators to estimate financial costs of providing protections to species when making listing decisions. Under current rules, listing decisions are only be based on science, “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of determination.” Frazer said that results of the economic analyses will be disclosed to the public, and will not violate the provision that economic costs not be weighed. “Nothing in here in my view is a radical change for how we have been consulting and listing species for the last decade or so,” he said.

The revisions also change how regulators can designate “critical habitats”, which are areas crucial for species recovery. Until now, these areas were sometimes still considered “critical” when not occupied by the species in question. The new rules allow officials to designate unoccupied areas “critical habitat” only when the occupied areas are inadequate for the conservation of the species or if inclusion of unoccupied areas would improve conservation efficiency.

Additionally, the new policy limits the ability of regulators to take climate change into consideration when making listing decisions. It also rescinds the “blanket rule” under section 4(d) of the ESA, which had automatically given threatened species the same protections as endangered species.

These revisions apply to future listing decisions and go into effect 30 days after being published in the Federal Register. The new rules do not apply to species currently protected under the ESA.

Criticism of the new rules from environmental groups was swift, with many pointing to a recent UN report that warned that more than one million species of plants and animals worldwide face global extinction due to human development and climate change. Critics contend that the new policy could accelerate the extinction of many species and allow industries to develop on critical ecological habitats. “These changes tip the scales way in favor of industry,” said Brett Hartl, Government Affairs Director for the Center for Biological Diversity, according to Nature. “They threaten to undermine the last 40 years of progress.”

The attorneys general of California and Massachusetts, along with the conservation group, Defenders of Wildlife, have announced plans to challenge the regulation in courts. Last year, attorneys general from 10 states endorsed comments criticizing the proposed revisions to ESA regulations. Democratic lawmakers have said that they will block the revisions. “We need to consider stopping these regulations by any means, including the Congressional Review Act,” said Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment. The Congressional Review Act allows lawmakers 60 legislative days to review rules issued by federal agencies and vote on whether to overturn the regulation.

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IG Report: Relocation of USDA Science Agencies May Have Broken Law

According to a report released on August 5, 2019 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Office of Inspector General (IG), the decision to relocate two of the department’s science agencies outside the Washington, DC region may have violated the fiscal year (FY) 2018 omnibus appropriations act.

USDA had first unveiled the proposal to relocate the agencies on August 9, 2018. In June 2019, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that the two USDA research agencies, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and Economic Research Service (ERS), will relocate from Washington, DC to the Kansas City region by September 30, 2019 to improve efficiencies and bring federal scientists closer to stakeholders.

The FY 2018 spending law required USDA to receive approval from Congress before spending any funds on agency relocations. According to the federal watchdog, although USDA has the legal authority to move the agencies, it may have broken the law by not obtaining budgetary approval from Congress prior to allocating funding towards the relocation. USDA allocated $340,000 from appropriations to hire Ernst & Young to assist with the relocations - a move not approved by Congress. The report says that this may have also violated the Antideficiency Act, which prevents federal employees from involving the government “in a contract or obligation for the payment of money before an appropriation is made.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), who requested the IG review, said that USDA must halt the relocation until Congress approves funding for it. The IG report also advised USDA to seek approval from a congressional committee before continuing with the move.

USDA’s Office of the General Counsel argued that the department is not required to receive permission from Congress for the relocation because the committee approval provisions of the spending law are unconstitutional. “To say the department was out of step with budgetary requirements disregards the authority given to the executive branch by the U.S. Constitution,” said a USDA spokesperson. “Since the inspector general affirms the department has the legal authority and we do not agree with the unconstitutional budgetary provision, this case is closed.” In response, the IG stated that those committee approval provisions have been included in appropriations laws since 2015 and USDA has previously considered them binding, according to a report in Politico.

The IG report was released a few days after acting White House Chief of Staff and White House Office of Management and Budget Director, Mick Mulvaney, revealed a significant motivation behind the plans to relocate several hundred USDA and Bureau of Land Management jobs outside Washington. During a speech to South Carolina’s Republican Party, Mulvaney said that the relocations aimed to “drain the swamp” by reducing the federal workforce. “Now, it’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker. I know that because a lot of them work for me, and I’ve tried. And you can’t do it,” said Mulvaney. “By simply saying to people, ‘You know what, we’re going to take you outside the bubble, outside the Beltway, outside this liberal haven of Washington, D.C., and move you out to the real part of the country,’ and they quit. What a wonderful way to sort of streamline government and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time.”

In response, J. David Cox, President of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents NIFA and ERS employees, said, “The administration’s decision to transfer hundreds of USDA jobs from DC isn’t about helping federal employees do their jobs better or delivering better services to the American taxpayer…Their goal is to drive out hard-working and dedicated civil servants and silence the parts of the agencies’ research that the administration views as inconvenient.” Meanwhile, USDA and AFGE have reached a deal that includes provisions on pay incentives, telework, and temporary housing to ease the transition for employees planning to relocate. USDA has agreed to extend the deadline for staff to decide whether they plan to relocate to Kansas City from July 15 to September 27.

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Higher-Ed Groups Caution FBI About Monitoring Chinese Scientists

Twenty-two higher education associations and rights groups released a statement on August 12, 2019 cautioning against an effort by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other government officials to monitor certain Chinese scientists working at American universities.

The statement cites an NPR report that intelligence agencies are encouraging U.S. research universities to monitor students and visiting scholars from Chinese state-affiliated research institutions.

The statement reads in part, “This move seemingly stems from growing suspicion that the Chinese government is engaged in espionage of American higher education, with the aim of stealing data and intellectual property. However, this is an area where the government must tread carefully.” The statement acknowledges that concerns over certain incidents involving Chinese espionage are valid but “calls to monitor individuals solely based on their country of origin violate norms of due process and should raise alarms in a democracy.”

The groups warn that the FBI investigation could hamper “future recruitment of talented foreign students and scholars” and “impede the training of new scientists, as well as damage ongoing projects” if “not conducted with care.” Among the signatories are the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the Association for the Study of Higher Education, and the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Apprehensions about academic espionage have been on the rise among lawmakers and federal agencies. Last year, enquiries from Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) led to investigations into allegations of foreign influence at NIH. Earlier this year, Senator Grassley also asked the National Science Foundation about its processes to detect and deter foreign threats to federally-funded research. Lawmakers have introduced legislation that intends to tackle issues of foreign influence on science and academic espionage without hampering scientific collaboration. More than 100 academic and science organizations, including AIBS, have expressed support for the measure.

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Analysis: Regions Within U.S. Have Surpassed 2 Degrees Celsius Increase

A recent analysis by Washington Post reporters finds that several regions within the United States are nearing or have already surpassed the 2-degree Celsius temperature increase mark, a commonly agreed upon critical threshold among climate scientists.

According to the analysis of more than a century of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) temperature data across the 48 contiguous U.S. states (Lower 48) and 3,107 counties, 71 counties have already hit the 2-degree Celsius mark. Alaska is the fastest-warming state in the country, but among the Lower 48, Rhode Island is the first whose average temperature rise has gone past the 2 degrees Celsius mark. Other northeastern states, such as New Jersey, Connecticut, Maine, and Massachusetts are approaching 2 degrees Celsius average increases. Higher temperatures during the winter season have made New Jersey and Rhode Island the fastest warming of the Lower 48 states.

The report suggests that warming has occurred in an uneven fashion with some regions exhibiting more than 2 degrees Celsius of warming, while others showing no temperature increases or even temperature decreases between 1895 to 2018. The Lower 48 states have shown an average warming of about 1 degree Celsius, a statistic that “obscures the severity of some of the nation’s temperature spikes.”

According to the Post, these regional temperature changes are already having major impacts. For example, agriculture in the northeast is under pressure from shifting seasons and rising populations of insects, such as ticks and agricultural pests. “In any one geographic location, 2 degrees Celsius may not represent global cataclysmic change, but it can threaten ecosystems, change landscapes and upend livelihoods and cultures,” according to the report.

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CDC Climate Scientist to File Whistleblower Complaint

The former chief of the Climate and Health Program (CHP) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), George Luber, plans to file a whistleblower complaint. According to E&E News, Luber alleges that the CDC sidelined him because he expressed concerns about the agency moving funds from climate change programs to other programs.

The CHP was established in 2009 under the National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) at CDC. Shortly after President Trump’s inauguration, CDC canceled a conference on climate change, which was later revived by private funding. Luber had raised concerns about the incident when it happened. In 2017, CHP was merged with the asthma program at NCEH during a reorganization that intended to “streamline critical activities and allow greater collaboration between subject matter experts.” Luber warned that the merger would cause the $10 million allocated by Congress for the climate program to be used for asthma work.

In 2018, Luber was appointed the acting chief of the Asthma and Community Health Branch for a brief period before he was placed on administrative leave due to “troubling allegations” of improper timekeeping and failing to get approval for teaching a class at Emory University. Luber is currently still employed by the CDC and holds his official title, but he is not allowed at his former office unsupervised and works from home five days a week.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a watchdog group that is handling Luber’s case, said that he has been “gagged, reassigned, had his program dismantled, and has been subjected to a welter of seemingly farcical charges.” PEER staff counsel Kevin Bell said that Luber was “one of the world’s leading experts of the public health impacts of climate change” and has been essentially “gagged at the agency.” PEER will be filing a whistleblower complaint on Luber’s behalf.

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Learn to Communicate and Influence Like a Pro: AIBS Communications Boot Camp for Scientists

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) is offering a professional development program designed to enhance the communication skills of scientists, particularly those interested in communicating with decision-makers and the news media. The program is an excellent way to develop new communication skills and identify effective methods for broadening the impact of research and education programs.

The AIBS Communications Training Boot Camp for Scientists expands on AIBS’s highly successful media and science policy training workshops. The Boot Camp meets the needs of everyone from graduate students to senior researchers and program administrators to newly elected professional society leaders.

The Boot Camp is an intensive, two-day, hands-on training program that will be held in Washington, DC on October 7-8, 2019.

Participants will learn:

  • How to translate scientific findings for non-technical audiences
  • How to tell a resonant story that informs decision-makers
  • How to prepare for and participate in a news interview
  • How to prepare for and engage in a meeting with a decision-maker
  • How to protect your scientific reputation
  • How to identify and define the audience you need to reach
  • What decision-makers want to hear from a scientist
  • What reporters are looking for in an interview
  • How to leverage social media
  • How the nation’s science policy is developed and implemented

Participants will also have the opportunity for formal and informal discussions with science policy and communications experts working in Washington, DC.

AIBS Individual Members and individuals nominated to participate by an AIBS Member Society/Organization receive a $55 discount on registration.

Learn more about the program and register now at

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Enter the 2019 Faces of Biology Photo Contest

Enter the Faces of Biology Photo Contest for your chance to win $250 and to have your photo appear on the cover of the journal BioScience.

The competition, sponsored by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), recognizes scientists who use imagery to communicate aspects of biological research to the public and policymakers.

The theme of the contest is “Faces of Biology.” Photographs entered into the competition must depict a person, such as a scientist, researcher, technician, collections curator, or student, engaging in biological research. The research may occur outside, in a lab, with a natural history collection, at a field station, on a computer, in a classroom, or anywhere else research is done.

The First Place Winner will have his/her winning photo featured on the cover of BioScience and will receive $250 along with a one-year membership in AIBS, including a subscription to BioScience. The Second and Third Place Winners will have his/her winning photo printed inside the journal and will receive a one-year membership in AIBS, including a subscription to BioScience.

The winning photo from the 2018 contest was featured on the cover of the May 2019 issue of BioScience.

Submissions must be received by 11:59:59 p.m. Eastern Time on September 30, 2019.

For more information or to enter the contest, visit

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Short Takes

  • An interview with Dr. Joanne S. Tornow, Assistant Director for the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO), has been published in the August 2019 issue of BioScience. James M. Verdier, Senior Editor for BioScience, interviewed Dr. Tornow about BIO's current operations and future plans. The article entitled, "Joanne S. Tornow: Advancing Opportunities for Convergence," is available at An audio version of this conversation can be found as a part of AIBS' podcast series, BioScience Talks, available at

  • The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) is now fully operational, making 179 environmental data products freely accessible. The Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI) in the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) at the National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced an open competition for the future management of NEON operations and maintenance. The solicitation is expected to result in an initial award of a five-year Cooperative Agreement with the possibility of a five-year extension for the management of NEON, which is expected to start in 2021. For more information visit

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is seeking nominations for a "pool" of experts to advise the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) on the ongoing ozone and particulate matter reviews. In July 2019, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler had rejected requests from CASAC members to reinstate panels of experts that had previously provided subject matter expertise in toxicology, dosimetry and risk modeling. Wheeler instead agreed to create a "pool of scientific consultants" who can be called upon as needed by the committee. The experts "will review science and policy assessments, and related documents, and will make themselves available, as requested, to provide feedback," according to the solicitation, which did not specify the number of experts that will be selected. Administrator Wheeler will make the final decision of which experts to make available to the panel. Nominations will be accepted through August 21, 2019: .

  • The Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU) is seeking applications and nominations for its Executive Director position. As the designated state museum of natural history, NHMU serves rural and urban communities across the state through its exhibits, educational programs, citizen science, and broad outreach activities. To read more about the position and submit your application, visit

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Become an Advocate for Science: Join the AIBS Legislative Action Center

Quick, free, easy, effective, impactful! Join the AIBS Legislative Action Center. The Legislative Action Center is a one-stop shop for learning about and influencing science policy. Through the website, users can contact elected officials and sign-up to interact with lawmakers. The website offers tools and resources to inform researchers about recent policy developments. The site also announces opportunities to serve on federal advisory boards and to comment on federal regulations.

This new tool is made possible through contributions from the Society for the Study of Evolution and the Botanical Society of America. AIBS and our partner organizations invite scientists and science educators to become policy advocates today. Simply go to to get started.

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