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Trump admin shrinks habitat protections of endangered species

Dec. 15 (UPI) -- The Trump administration adopted a new rule Tuesday that narrows the definition of what constitutes a habitat under the Endangered Species Act that environmentalists say will threaten the conservation of animals.

Under the new regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior shrank the definition of "critical habitat" to areas "currently or periodically" required for a listed endangered species to live.

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The old definition provided protections for habitats animals listed as endangered currently live in, habitats they once lived in but were forced out due climate change or development and habitats they may be forced to relocate to in the future due to these factors.

The department argued in the document the change was responding to a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that sided with a company whose land had been designated as critical habitat of the dusky gopher frog, which once lived in the area in question.

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The Supreme Court ruled the department didn't take into consideration the millions of dollars of economic loss to the company compared to the benefits of the designation to the frog.

The department argued that the change in definition was made in light of the Supreme Court decision to make regulations clearer and consistent and to ensure that any area designated as critical habitat must also be habitat for the species.

"This action will bring greater clarity and consistency to how the service designates critical habitat," Rob Wallace, assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife Parks, said in a statement. "Making the Endangered Species Act more effective at conserving imperiled wildlife and more transparent and user friendly for stakeholders represents a win-win for everyone."

The new regulation is the second rollback of protections under the Endangered Species Act by the Trump administration after it proposed changes last year.

Environmental groups on Tuesday charged the Trump administration of torching wildlife protections as it heads out the door.

"This administration is leaving office with a scorched earth policy for wildlife," Addie Haughey, the legislative director for lands, wildlife and oceans at Earthjustice, said in a statement. "The Trump administration finalized this rule just under the wire to make it harder for species to survive and recover -- the exact opposite of what we should be doing under the Endangered Species Act."

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Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest environmental law organization, said the new rule undercuts wildlife conservation amid climate change by prohibiting new habitat designations for species in migration due to rising temperatures and other conditions.

It said the rule is especially damaging in places such as Hawaii where habitat is limited for native species.

The National Resources Defense Council called the new regulation an attack on laws that protect wildlife.

"We need to call this out for what it is: a blatant disregard for our nation's wildlife and wild places, in favor of more oil and gas development and habitat destruction," Rebecca Riley, legal director of the NRDC's Nature Program, said in a statement. "This administration continues to favor special interests over the interests of most Americans, who favor species protections."

Meanwhile, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate committee on environment and public works, said he applauded the rule, stating it will make the Endangered Species Act "work better for wildlife and people."

"This final rule will more clearly define habitat and protect species in a more focused way," he said in a statement. "It will deliver commonsense protections for endangered species and the habitat they depend on."

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The move follows the Trump administration issuing several new regulatory changes after last month's presidential election, including sweeping amendments to immigration rules that tighten asylum standards and the weakening of laws protecting migratory birds, among others.

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