The political climate of the United States has experienced a dramatic shift over the past year with a rise of politically conservative leaders including the current far-right President, Donald Trump, and the Republicans dominating Capitol Hill. Wildlife protection is a policy area that is significantly influenced by politics and although a bipartisan issue, wildlife protection, conservation and other environmental issues are oftentimes under-prioritized during politically conservative administrations (4,8). Environmental policy does not always align with narrow economic goals; it relies on prioritizing ecosystem services which are often difficult to quantify and monetize. Republican politicians tend to deem economic growth and development as primary authorities when forming environmental policy (8) and this poses a problem for issues such as species protection. The Trump Administration represents a radical far right platform that has already proposed worrisome environmental modifications that deprioritize such protections and, if carried out, will be detrimental to wildlife and the environment.
Wildlife is largely managed at the state level, but the federal government still plays a significant role in regulating and protecting species through several pieces of federal legislation including the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 (2). The ESA permits the federal government to list at-risk wildlife as threatened or endangered, prohibiting the public from harming the species or interfering with its habitat (9). Since its creation, the legislation has been proven highly successful for species conservation and is credited to have helped bring back a number of species from the brink of extinction including the symbolic Bald Eagle (11). Despite its bipartisan beginnings, popularly with the public, and documented success, the ESA is one piece of environmental legislation that has faced blunt opposition from the political right for decades (1,3) and faces even more challenges under the current administration. There have been at least 303 legislative attacks from Republicans attempting to dismantle or weaken the ESA since 1996 and in the past five years, attacks increased by 600 percent (7). The Republican dominated 114th Congress set a record-breaking 135 attacks in a single session before its departure in December of 2016 (7). Since January 2017, the 115th Congress still dominated by conservative Republicans has introduced at least 46 legislative attacks seeking to strip federal protections from endangered species or aimed to weaken the ESA directly (7).
The Federal Land Freedom Act is recent example of such a proposal from Tennessee Republican Representative Diane Black. The proposed act would waive federal environmental requirements, chiefly the ESA, and exempt oil and gas development to be available on protected Federal land and habitat (2). If passed, The Federal Land Freedom Act will allow corporations to legally infringe on essential habitats that several endangered species rely on. Hunting restrictions are another area being condemned by conservative legislators. Hunting concerns are not always tied to the use of land, but to preserving traditions regardless of their ethical or environmental implications. Several rather inhumane amendments effortlessly passed during 2016 when Congress repealed airborne hunting of wolves, bears, and wolverines; lifted restrictions on bear baiting and the use of traps and snares for killing bears; the hunting of bear cubs and mothers with cubs; and the practice of killing wolf pups in their dens (6). The sponsoring Republican Senator, Dan Sullivan, claimed that the previous restrictions were an infringement on the rights of Americans (6), but failed to mention that hunting is a multimillion dollar industry with lobbying groups organizations that financially incentivize politicians who support their industry (17). In the wake of these legislative changes, the United States has set progress back for animal welfare and significant detrimental impacts for several important keystone species have been recorded.
The main objections that Republicans have to the ESA and species conservation are the short term financial burdens from administering protections and the restrictions placed on the use of land. Republicans have gone on record to claim that “over the last few decades, the ESA has stunted economic development, halted the construction of projects, [and] burdened landowners" (5). The ESA does involve land management and it does limit land use, because in order to recover a species, the land in which they rely on also needs protection. Republican viewpoints can be partially rationalized when examining the history of the country’s economic success. The United States emerged as a global power largely due to its success in the US Industrial Revolution fueled by unrestricted use of natural resources, such as coal (12). Effective species protection is one trajectory that limits previous practices, which can help explain the opposition from a political party that encourages this economic model. Realistically, this model is not sustainable and is no longer practical in a world facing a human-induced mass extinction event, climatic changes and life-threatening resource limitations (13). The overexploitation of the land’s finite resources is a leading cause of global environmental degradation and species loss and the United States is one of the largest consumers of those resources (14). Emerging world leaders are turning to sustainable practices and incorporating comprehensive legislation that protects natural resources and threatened species. In order to maintain global leadership and influence, not to mention ecosystem balance, the United States must work towards incorporating fundamental changes to current practices and conservative ideologies. Environmental issues are not partisan and environmental protection should not sway with the political tide. Reestablishing this idea within the Republican platform would be a step towards a more sustainable future and can be accomplished by public will.
Opposing views within politics are warranted and to be expected in a democracy such as the US. Within governmental institutions, equal representation of viewpoints allows for change to be subtle and reasonable, but when the political rule shifts dramatically to one side or the other, there is a risk that a specific political agenda will influence legislation and even go against popular opinion. Under far-right rule, environmental protection is one area that can be weakened by a select governing few resulting in catastrophic consequences for species and natural areas. History shows that this kind of political control will pass, but the current political climate in the United States is already changing democratic discourse on many fronts, including environmental policy. With no indication of change within the current Republican Administration, far-right political decisions are sure to have far reaching implications for wildlife.
Image: Center for Biological Diversity
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