The president and the executive branch hold enormous sway in setting US wildlife policy—from signing (or vetoing) wildlife-related legislation, to issuing orders and regulations that enhance (or remove) protections for wildlife and habitat, to nominating the federal judges who may determine whether those laws and regulations are valid. Sadly, over the past four years, the Trump administration wielded its power in this arena to weaken major federal laws put in place to safeguard wildlife and its habitat, including the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).
The Trump administration also conducted the first-ever sale of oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)—threatening migratory birds, caribou, and polar bears. It removed millions of acres of critical forest habitat for threatened northern spotted owls, proposed unsafe and inhumane surgical sterilization procedures on wild mares, and built miles of steel wall along the US-Mexico border, bypassing environmental review and destroying and further dividing already fragmented landscapes relied upon by hundreds of species. It overturned an Obama-era ban on the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on lands managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), despite the lethal threat that lead poisoning poses to species such as the golden eagle and sandhill crane.
Over the past four years, ecologically important large carnivores were especially targeted. The administration stripped ESA protections from gray wolves and Yellowstone-area grizzly bears, abandoned red wolf recovery efforts in North Carolina, withdrew an Obama administration proposal to grant ESA protections to wolverines in the contiguous 48 states, and authorized inhumane methods of hunting and trapping wolves, bears, and coyotes in national preserves in Alaska.
In welcome contrast, the current administration has thus far demonstrated a commitment to environmental conservation and wildlife protection. On Inauguration Day, President Biden issued an executive order directing agency heads to immediately review (with an eye toward suspending, revising, or rescinding) all regulatory actions taken during the previous four years that may be inconsistent with a science-based approach. This includes nearly all of the Trump-era regulations undermining the ESA, NEPA, and the MBTA. On the same day, President Biden temporarily halted oil and gas activity in ANWR, the first step toward fulfilling his campaign promise to permanently protect the refuge.
One week later, President Biden signed another order that established a bold vision for conserving habitat vital to the preservation of biodiversity. The policy, known informally as “30x30,” calls for the permanent protection of 30 percent of the nation’s undeveloped lands and waters by 2030. This ambitious goal emerged from a growing scientific consensus that swift, transformative action is needed to prevent potentially catastrophic species extinction and ecosystem collapse that would imperil not only wildlife but also human survival. The order also created the Civilian Climate Corps, a jobs program designed to conserve public lands, protect biodiversity, and address climate change.
Taken together, these initial actions signal that the preservation of wildlife and its habitat is no longer seen as merely an inconvenience or burden; rather, it is rightly considered an imperative for the sake of our planet, economy, and way of life.
As promising as these early actions are, there are many more opportunities for the administration to effect rapid change and lay the groundwork for substantive progress. AWI submitted a letter to the presidential transition team before the inauguration laying out our vision for what could and should be accomplished for animals in the administration’s first 100 days. For wildlife, these urgent actions primarily involve rolling back the harmful policies of the previous administration.
For example, the rules promulgated to undermine the ESA and NEPA should be swiftly reversed to return those laws to their full efficacy. Unscientific decisions made about specific ESA-listed species and their habitats should also be revisited, including returning federal protections to gray wolves and reinstating the release of captive red wolves into protected areas.
The new administration can also quickly undo certain barbaric and dangerous hunting policies pursued by the previous administration. It should reissue the order prohibiting the use of toxic lead ammunition and fishing tackle on USFWS lands. It should also reverse the rule allowing brutal hunting practices—such as killing black bears and wolves with cubs in their dens—in national parks and preserves in Alaska, and scrap another rule that would have permitted baiting of brown bears within an Alaskan national wildlife refuge. The Biden administration also has an opportunity to rescind a Trump-era policy that relaxed the rules governing the importation of trophies of elephants, lions, and bonteboks (an endangered antelope species) from certain African countries, which would reestablish a transparent and structured system for analyzing import permits.
Internationally, there is significant conservation work to be accomplished with foreign partners. The United States should immediately rejoin, enforce, or ratify treaties vital to promoting the health and survival of marine and terrestrial species, including the Convention on Migratory Species, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The 30x30 policy can be enhanced by making it a diplomatic priority and advocating for it at the CBD’s fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties next year.
Wildlife trade is another area of opportunity, particularly because the United States is responsible for 20 percent of the global trade. As we have tragically witnessed over the past year, the trade in wild animals threatens not only species survival but also public health, with increased interactions between humans and animals creating prime conditions for the transmission of deadly new diseases. To combat this, the United States should support efforts to adopt a new protocol to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime that covers wildlife trafficking.
The actions outlined here are merely first steps. President Biden’s early executive orders (which included having the United States rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change) are heartening, but it will take an ongoing record of truly courageous leadership to adequately confront the alarming crises that wildlife and the planet face. AWI will continue to advocate for comprehensive solutions that combat both the suffering and population declines that wildlife face.