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Hiaasen: The Trump administration declares war on wildlife

FILE - In this July 8, 2019 file photo President Donald Trump listens as Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt speaks during an event on the environment in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Seven environmental and animal protection groups teamed up to file the first lawsuit challenging the Trump administration's rollback of the Endangered Species Act. The environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice filed the lawsuit Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019, on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, WildEarth Guardians, and the Humane Society of the United States. The lawsuit comes after the federal government earlier this month announced a series of changes to weaken the Endangered Species Act.
FILE - In this July 8, 2019 file photo President Donald Trump listens as Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt speaks during an event on the environment in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Seven environmental and animal protection groups teamed up to file the first lawsuit challenging the Trump administration's rollback of the Endangered Species Act. The environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice filed the lawsuit Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019, on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, WildEarth Guardians, and the Humane Society of the United States. The lawsuit comes after the federal government earlier this month announced a series of changes to weaken the Endangered Species Act. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The long Republican war on the Endangered Species Act heated up this month when the Trump administration announced it was changing the rules about how far the government should go to save America’s imperiled wildlife.

Having failed to persuade Congress to shred the landmark conservation law — signed by a Republican president, Richard Nixon, in 1973 — lobbyists for the oil, mining and logging interests were elated by the breadth and boldness of President Donald Trump’s shortcut.

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The new rules would make it easier to "de-list" or a remove a species from the federal endangered list, and also to water down protections for those classified as "threatened."

And in an unrepentant nod to developers and the extraction industries, regulators will now be able to consider economic factors when deciding whether a particular mammal, bird or wildflower deserves to be treated as endangered, even if it's indisputably sliding toward extinction.

In other words, saving God's creations from oblivion is a worthy mission unless it means lost revenues for ExxonMobil or Koch Industries.

In Florida, where raw habitat has been drastically vanishing for decades, the Endangered Species Act has been instrumental in saving iconic wildlife such as the alligator, bald eagle, wood stork, several beloved species of sea turtles, the American crocodile, Everglades kite, manatee, Key deer and, of course, the Florida panther.

Heroic efforts and raised public awareness have boosted the panther population from double digits to current estimates of between 120 and 230 animals. However, the far-roaming felines are increasingly losing territory to overdevelopment and frequently get killed by traffic.

Ironically, some critics of the Endangered Species Act point to the prolonging of the panther's tenuous presence as a success story showing that the law did its job, and that regulations are no longer needed to save the cats.

That's the same untested argument being used by the feds about modestly resurgent species as diverse in size and range as the Yellowstone grizzly bear and Florida Key deer.

Political pressure to remove protection for the grizzlies has come from ranchers, and also hunting groups in Wyoming and Idaho that say there are now enough bears in the woods that people ought to be able to shoot them for sport.

Because, really, what's the point of saving a wild animal from extinction if we can't kill 'em and mount their stuffed heads on a wall?

According to the National Park Service, the number of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone River ecosystem has risen from only 136 in 1975 to an estimated 718 today. Sixty-nine of the animals are believed to have died last year.

Few field biologists would call that a thriving population, and last year a federal judge agreed. He overruled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and reinstated protection for Yellowstone grizzlies.

So far, nobody has publicly proposed a hunting season for the famously adorable deer that live on Big Pine and a few other Lower Keys islands. Back in the 1950s, poaching and development had wiped out all but about two dozen of the docile, dog-sized animals.

Thanks to federal and state supervision, the Key deer herds gradually rebounded to more than 950 adults, sub-adults and fawns. Then, in 2016, an outbreak of screw worms spread a flesh-eating disease that killed about 130 animals.

The following year, Hurricane Irma walloped Monroe County, submerging much of the Key deer's browsing habitat. As tourism rebounded, road kills increased.

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Yet, weirdly, Fish and Wildlife recently said it wants to remove the deer from the endangered species list. Officials stated their recommendation is based on the “best available scientific and commercial information.”

I added the italics because one commercial factor when weighing the fate of the little deer is the amount of wild acreage they need. Undeveloped land is limited — and very valuable to builders — in the Keys.

The great Yellowstone grizzlies might not be universally cherished in Wyoming, but the Key deer’s human constituency is loud, loyal and bipartisan — as wildlife federal officials are likely to see on Aug. 22, when a public hearing is scheduled at 6 p.m. at the Government Center in Marathon.

Judging a creature's worth on the planet by weighing the cost of not exterminating it is obscene, but that cold philosophy is like scripture to hardcore haters of the Endangered Species Act.

It's hardly shocking that the current Secretary of Interior, David Bernhardt, was a lobbyist for the oil and gas industries, or that his new rules will diminish the issue of climate change in the government's decisions about protecting wildlife.

The waters of the Florida Keys are rising, by the way, which isn't too good for the deer or the land developers. Unfortunately, the deer don't have any ex-lobbyists working in the Trump administration.

(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: The Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172.)

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