The Trump administration is proposing an overhaul of the Endangered Species Act that, among other things, would allow economic impact to be considered when deciding whether to list a species as endangered. Officials say the changes are intended to improve conservation results. But some environmentalists are worried. Among them is Joan Walsh of Mass Audubon, who is currently at a bird research site on Great Gull Island in Long Island Sound. She spoke with WGBH News' Craig LeMoult. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Craig LeMoult: So what are some of the species here that are protected under the Endangered Species Act?
Joan Walsh: Well, I think the species in Massachusetts that would be most widely recognized, one would be humpback whale. Others would be the coastal nesting piping plover as well as Massachusetts breeding population of roseate tern.
LeMoult: How might these proposed rule changes affect any of those species?
Walsh: With piping plover, one of the things that's challenging is that bird right now is listed as threatened. The numbers are really going up, it's doing very well. If that bird were to be delisted and then to decline because there weren't any further protections given to it, if it were to re-enter the list as a threatened bird again we would not be able to protect it as we do now. With roseate tern, which is currently endangered, if we were to down-list it to threatened, because we had conservation success, we may have difficulty in protecting it. There is a blanket protection now for threatened species and that's going to be taken away with these new rules.
LeMoult: Massachusetts though does have its own strict environmental regulations. Might state regulations mean any federal changes really wouldn't be felt here?
Walsh: The state regulations only go as far as state property and state permitting goes. So, for instance, there's only a certain amount of waters that the state of Massachusetts is responsible for. And then the federal government steps in. Earlier in the year, the Department of Interior did a rereading of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act which which took away a lot of protections for migratory birds. And that's one backstop that now has some pretty big holes in it. Is it all going to end on the state of Massachusetts shoulders to protect the piping plover without support from the federal government? We just don't know.
LeMoult: What about the argument, especially from business and from agriculture, that these protections are excessive and they make it impossible for some people to use even their own property?
Walsh: In most cases when the federal Endangered Species Act is brought to bear, at that point there is compromises that are made to reduce the take of endangered species and there are partnerships that are formed. What we need to do is make it easier for people who do have endangered species or threatened species on their private land to be able to protect them, as well as to realize benefits that they're privately held land has. It's pretty rare that a project is completely halted because of the Endangered Species Act.
LeMoult: This act has been around for 45 years is it due for some kind of an upgrade?
Walsh: I would say absolutely. If we want to have recovery of endangered species, there are several things that we really need to do, and one is to fully fund it. Another aspect of it is exploring private partnerships to be able to incentivize private landowners to have endangered species on their property.
LeMoult: The proposal also changes what's considered the "foreseeable future." What's the significance of that? What difference will that make?
Walsh: You know, the elephant in the room is climate change. We've got fifteen hundred miles of coastline. Sea level will be rising possibly by as much as three feet by 2100. We're going to be losing a lot of habitat for people as well as for wildlife. The reading of this new rule seems to be almost intentional at eliminating that as one of the things we would consider. There's a little sparrow called a saltmarsh sparrow that right now was petitioned for listing on the federal Endangered Species Act. That little bird is declining at about 9 percent a year. And it lives in the salt marshes of Massachusetts, and actually Massachusetts hosts a pretty big percentage of its worldwide population, which is fantastic. However at 9 percent decline a year, it's anticipated that this bird will be extinct by 2050 due to sea level rise from climate change. Now, if someone can say 'well, we're not going to consider climate change and sea level rise when we talk about this bird', that bird may very well may not be listed. And there's urgency to recover that bird and to try and find a way to staunch the decline.
LeMoult: So where you are right now there are endangered species birds that maybe I'm hearing in the background?
Walsh: Yeah yeah. You can hear roseate turns, you can hear common terns. A common turn just flew in with a small bluefish and it's young are battling over it.
LeMoult: OK, well Joan Walsh, get back to watching those birds there thank you so much for joining us today.
Walsh: Thank you.
LeMoult: That's Joan Walsh, the Bertrand Chair of Natural History and Field Ornithology for Mass Audubon. She joined us from Great Gull Island, on Long Island Sound. This is All Things Considered.