Environmentalists have called on state lawmakers to strengthen Oregon’s wildlife protection statutes in the wake of revised federal Endangered Species Act regulations.
Farm and ranch organizations, meanwhile, believe the rule changes won’t fundamentally alter the ESA and will actually increase opportunities for habit collaboration with the federal government.
Last month, the Trump administration enacted updated ESA regulations that environmentalists decried as weakening species protections, prompting Oregon and numerous other state governments to sue to block the changes.
Representatives of several environmental groups recently testified before the House Natural Resources Committee, urging heightened state safeguards for species to make up for the “assault” on federal protections.
“Our concern is deepened because Oregon is not well-positioned to compensate for these changes,” said Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland.
Specifically, the Trump administration’s regulatory changes will prevent federal agencies from considering long-term challenges, such as climate change, when deciding whether to list species as threatened or endangered, the environmental groups said.
The revisions will also weaken protections for critical habitat that’s not yet occupied by threatened and endangered species, and remove the “blanket” protections for species that have been declared threatened, among other problems, the groups claimed.
Oregon lawmakers scored several environmental “victories” during the most recent legislative session, such as shielding data about species location and encouraging habitat “connectivity,” which could be broadened, said Sristi Kamal, senior representative of the Defenders of Wildlife.
“We need to build more on these policies to act as a backstop to the current weakening at the federal level,” Kamal said.
For example, the environmental representatives said Oregon should expand Senate Bill 2250, which requires state agencies to monitor for federal reductions to Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act standards and recommend state-level compensations.
Oregon should “step into the void” for wildlife by adopting this approach for the Endangered Species Act as well, Sallinger said.
“As it has in other contexts, the state of Oregon should push back against these rollbacks and look to strengthen its own laws to conserve biological diversity,” said Dan Rohlf, an environmental law professor at Lewis and Clark Law School.
Representatives of the Oregon Farm Bureau, Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and Oregonians for Food and Shelter defended the federal revisions as being aligned with the language of the Endangered Species Act and allowing for more flexibility to the benefit of landowners and species.
By prioritizing the protection of occupied habitat, the regulations prevent federal agencies from establishing unnecessarily large “buffers” of unoccupied habitat that complicate management without helping species, said Kathy Hadley, a Willamette Valley farmer.
“It lends to the credibility of the rules and the trust the landowner has that the process will work, instead of overreach,” Hadley said.
Instead of automatically implementing endangered species restrictions for threatened species, the rules will allow federal official to tailor management practices specific to threatened species, she said.
For example, the streaked horned lark actually prefers areas that are cultivated for agriculture, so the stricter level of regulation would be counterproductive, Hadley said. “Our doing our daily jobs is what helps that bird.”
Out in the field, some current requirements for unoccupied critical fish habitat have ranchers going to great expense without actually helping the species— such as maintaining fencing around creeks that have already gone dry by the time cattle are released in summer, said Todd Nash, treasurer of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association.
“We’re going to run these guys out of business with that much to maintain,” he said.
There’s “zero tolerance” for impacts from cattle while protected bull trout prey upon protected salmon and steelhead, Nash said.
It’s also unlikely the ESA regulatory changes will alleviate requirements on stubble height that are burdensome for cattle producers, he said. “The world isn’t coming to an end with any of these. It won’t change anything on the ground right now.”