Interior Department Tells Staff To Shut Up About Mandatory Endangered Species Permits

It's "not appropriate" to say permits are "required," warns the memo.

New guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of the Interior now prohibit staff members from informing private interests when they must obtain a permit before they can develop properties where activities may affect habitats of endangered species.

A memorandum issued last month by the Fish and Wildlife Service principal deputy director, Greg Sheehan, declared that it’s “not appropriate” for staff to tell developers when they need to obtain such a permit — even though it may be required by law in many circumstances.

Under a section of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, businesses and individuals must request what’s called an “incidental take permit” if they believe their developments could interfere with the habitats of endangered species.

Sheehan insists in his memo that it’s the “decision of the applicant” whether or not to apply for such a permit. Staff members should not use “mandatory language (e.g., a permit is ‘required’),” the memo warns.

“The biological, legal, and economic risk assessment regarding whether to seek a permit belongs with the private party determining how to proceed,” Sheehan said.

Staffers will still be able to provide “critical technical assistance” when it’s requested, according to the memo.

The memo also appears to sharply limit situations where such permits may be required. That includes only cases “where a non-federal project is likely to result in a ‘take’ of a listed species of fish or wildlife ... habitat modification, in and of itself, does not necessarily constitute take,” according to the memo. That would seem to imply such a decision would rely on the judgment of a private interest with a commercial business at stake.

Sheehan was the official who announced to trophy hunting lobby group Safari Club International in Tanzania last year that the Trump administration was lifting an Obama-era ban on elephant trophies from two African nations, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Donald Trump later held off on the action, but the ban was officially lifted again on a “case-by-case basis” in March.

He’s considered among the Interior officials “behind the curtain who are really, really changing our public lands and setting a future direction that may or may not be consistent with what the law requires,” Jim Lyons, a research scholar at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, told The Revelator.

Environmental advocates have criticized Sheehan’s newest edict as a way to weaken regulations with the kind of single-handed action that has been a hallmark of the Trump administration. Noah Greenwald of the environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity told The Hill that he believes it will be harder to enforce requirements protecting habitats of endangered species because there will no longer be a record of permit recommendations.

The memo is the latest erosion of wildlife protections by the Trump administration.

The administration is also battling blanket safeguards when a species is declared threatened. Under the Endangered Species Act, once a species is listed as threatened, a series of protections automatically go into effect. Under a proposed new rule, specific protections would be decided on a case by case basis.

An endangered species is at risk of extinction, while a threatened species is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. Threatened species include such animals as manatees, sea otters, the Guadalupe fur seal, wood bison, the gray wolf, the grizzly, the polar bear and the northern spotted owl. There are more than 300 threatened animal and plant species in the U.S. More than 500 animal species are endangered in the U.S.

Last month, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tapped Susan Combs — a rancher and fierce opponent of the Endangered Species Act with strong ties to the oil industry — to serve as acting secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.

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