Host Daniel Raimi talks with Ya-Wei Li, Director of Biodiversity at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center (EPIC). Ya-Wei is an expert on the Endangered Species Act, a law that's been in the news recently because the Trump administration has proposed a number of changes to the way the Act is administered and enforced. We'll get Ya-Wei's take on which changes are most important, what effect they'll have on species and their habitat, and whether media coverage of the proposed changes has been overwrought.
Top of the Stack
References and recommendations made throughout the podcast:
- "A Guide to the Revised Endangered Species Regulations," an analysis by the Environmental Policy Innovation Center
- "Last week's endangered species regulations: what really happened?" by Ya-Wei Li
- Noah's Choice: The Future of the Endangered Species Act by Charles C. Mann and Mark L. Plummer
- Sage-Grouse mating dances
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi.
This week, we talk with Ya-Wei Li, director of biodiversity at the Environmental Policy Innovation Center (EPIC). Ya-Wei is an expert on the Endangered Species Act, a law that's been in the news recently because the Trump administration has proposed a number of changes to the way the act is administered and enforced. We'll get Ya-Wei's take on which changes are most important, what effect they'll have on species and their habitat, and whether media coverage of the proposed changes has been overwrought. Stay with us.
Daniel Raimi: Okay. Ya-Wei Li of the Environmental Policy Innovation Center. Thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Ya-Wei Li: Oh, thanks so much for having me. I'm really looking forward to speaking with you about my favorite topic, which is the Endangered Species Act.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, I'm looking forward to it too. I would say it's my favorite topic except I know virtually nothing about it, so I'm really looking forward to sort of learning something today in our conversation. But before we dive into the endangered species act, can you first tell us how you got interested in environmental issues and how you started working on them in the first place?
Ya-Wei Li: Absolutely. There's actually a one-word answer that you probably won't get a lot, and that answer is snakes. So I grew up in the East Village in New York City where there wasn't much of any natural areas around. Central Park was about as natural as it got in Manhattan. But probably about 30 years ago, I actually developed this fascination with snakes, and I've actually been keeping snakes for about three decades. And that literally is what got me interested in wildlife conservation, and why I'm here today. So it really started with this really childhood fascination with a particular type of critter, and that of course expanded to other things like freshwater fish, I kept turtles, all sorts of things. And I eventually became really sort of passionate about the natural world and conservation, especially after I got a car and was able to drive around.
Daniel Raimi: I noticed on the the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, which I think you sometimes refer to as EPIC -
Ya-Wei Li: Right.
Daniel Raimi: ... on your bio it says, a childhood menagerie of pet, snakes, turtles and fish led me to wildlife conversation. I love that.
Ya-Wei Li: Yeah, that's right. That's right. There really wasn't much of an opportunity for camping or Boy Scouts or hiking in the wilderness when you're in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world, so you make with what you have.
Daniel Raimi: Great. Well, okay, so feel free to incorporate any snake, turtle or fish references into our conversation as we go.
Ya-Wei Li: Okay.
Daniel Raimi: So, as you mentioned, we're going to talk about the Endangered Species Act, we might refer to it as the ESA sometimes in our conversation. Can you give us a little bit of historical background on ESA? It was signed, I believe, in 1973 by President Nixon. I noted that it passed both the Senate and the House with overwhelming majorities, it passed unanimously in the Senate. So when the law was originally passed, what was it sort of intended to accomplish?
Ya-Wei Li: Yeah. So the law was passed in response to really a growing recognition amongst the American public and amongst lawmakers that we were facing an extinction crisis. Right? We had a number of species, both in America and overseas, that were going extinct, and oftentimes because of what humans were doing and human activities. So the Endangered Species Act was passed with really broad support, and it still enjoys that support amongst the American public today, with two main goals. The first, and the most urgent goal, is to prevent extinction. Right? This is sort of the crisis, the fire that we want to put out. And that's what animated Congress very much to pass legislation with prohibitions on certain human activities in order to prevent species from sliding further into extinction. But preventing extinction isn't enough. Right? Because if you just have a species that's sort of at the very edge of maybe going extinct, that's not really what we would call success. Right?
Daniel Raimi: Yeah.
Ya-Wei Li: So that's why the Endangered Species Act has a second primary goal, and that's to recover species to the point where they're secure in the long term. And if they can be secured in the long term, then the federal government can return the management of that species back to the states, which is the entity that's been managing endangered species until the federal government basically took legal authority over those species. So those are the two main goals, and oftentimes people also talk about conserving ecosystems or conserving habitat. My view is that conserving habitat and ecosystems are probably the primary means by which we can recover species, because for most species, we're not going to be able to get them to the point of recovery without protecting and managing their ecosystems.
Daniel Raimi: Right, and that piece is where things get difficult, and where we have to start thinking about the trade-offs involved, of course.
Ya-Wei Li: Exactly. And trade-offs is such a key concept in how the Endangered Species Act works.
Daniel Raimi: Well, we're going to certainly get into some of those issues, but again, first maybe a little bit of a background question. As I mentioned, I know very little about the ESA, but in the brief reading that I've done about it, I got a sense that people have very different views about how successful the act has been to date. Can you give us some perspective on maybe some of the historical successes that the act has achieved and also where it might have some shortcomings?
Ya-Wei Li: Absolutely, Daniel. This is actually a really, really great question because the act's success or lack of success is probably the most debated topic under the Endangered Species Act today. If you look at much of any of the congressional discussion around the ESA, it almost always starts with this broad claim that the act is a failure or it's a great success. So let's take a minute to sort of unpack what that really means. Right?
So for those who want to reform to act, what they'll oftentimes emphasize is the fact that the act has recovered only about 2% of the 2,150 species that have been listed. And so a 2% recovery rate to some looks like a failure. Right? After some 45 years, why do we only have 55 species that are recovered?
Daniel Raimi: Right?
Ya-Wei Li: On the other side of the argument are those who resist reforms to the Endangered Species Act, typically conservationists, and they will emphasize that the Endangered Species Act has been something along the lines of 95 to 99% effective at preventing extinction. Right? So they're looking at success from a completely different metric, not what's been recovered, but rather how many species are still with us today. And that's an astounding number. I mean, that really is pretty remarkable that we've lost very few species after 45 years.
And so my perspective is, basically, we're missing a huge chunk of the species when you only look at two extremes. Right? So on the one hand, we look at the 2% of species that have been recovered. On the other hand, we look at roughly the 3 or 5% of species that have gone extinct. My question is, what happened to the 95% of species in the middle? Because that's actually what the day-to-day work of the Endangered Species Act is all about.
And unfortunately, there just aren't good stats on how those species are doing. Are they moving closer to recovery? Are they moving further away from recovery? Are they stable? We have information here and there on particular species, but across the board, the government doesn't keep good records of how the vast majority of species are doing on a year-to-year basis.
The best information we have today is actually a study that I was part of a few years ago, where we looked at some long-term trends using some less-than-perfect data that the government had been collecting. And what we found was actually fairly disappointing. We found that roughly half of all listed species were still in long-term decline after being listed, and that roughly only 30% of them were stable or improving. And so there are actually reasons for the fact that probably half of species are not doing great, and we can talk a little bit about those later, but my assessment is that the effectiveness of the ESA is very mixed. We have some great successes to date. The California condor is still soaring, American alligators have been recovered, but we have a lot, a lot of species that are slipping through the cracks. We have a bunch of Hawaiian plants that are down to just a handful of individuals left. They're probably some of the most imperiled species in the Endangered Species Act and they're really not getting much of any attention.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's useful. I mean, just that simple point to note that the act covers both plants as well as vertebrates and invertebrates. It's not just a sort of animal thing, it applies to vegetation as well.
Ya-Wei Li: Exactly, and, in fact, that's a really interesting point because the poster child of endangered species, so what you see on a front page of the New York Times or the Washington Post will usually be an animal.
Daniel Raimi: Right. Bald eagles especially.
Ya-Wei Li: Yep. Exactly. Most people do not know that 57% of all US listed species are plants. And that's surprising to a lot of people because you almost never hear about plants under the ESA, but they make up, again, more than half of all listed species.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. That's good to know.
So we're going to talk, in just a minute, I'm going to ask you about some of the proposed changes to the act that the Trump administration has announced recently, but before we talk about those proposed changes, are there changes to the act or the implementation of the act that you think would be particularly valuable? Setting aside whatever proposals the administration has made recently, and why might they be? And you might have a long list of this, but I'll ask you to just pick one or two and tell us about them.
Ya-Wei Li: Actually, my organization very much focuses on developing proactive improvements to the Endangered Species Act, so the topic of your question is actually the bulk of my work. And I have a very, very long list, but let me pick one or two ideas, especially ones that your listeners might not have heard much about. So the first one I'd like to start with is, I would really like to see the government make much better use of technology to improve how it administers the Endangered Species Act. So, for example, there is great opportunities to use satellite images, including the ones that you can find on Google Earth, to monitor the condition of habitats for endangered species and to determine whether people are actually violating the Endangered Species Act.
I was doing some of this work in my past job where I just went on Google Maps, compared what we were seeing on satellite images with what people were supposed to be doing under the Endangered Species Act permits, and we found a bunch of violations that the federal government didn't know about. And the reason is the federal government is really under-resourced. It simply doesn't have the capabilities to go out in the field and monitor the thousands and thousands, really tens of thousands, of projects that are being permitted under the Endangered Species Act. But now we have essentially free data that almost anyone can access sitting in front of their computer to help with monitoring and compliance. So this is really a revolution, in my view, in how we think about endangered species management, and it's a really good opportunity.
Another, just real quick, opportunity is if we think about our mobile phones, your iPhones and the internet, we can use these technologies to expedite the process of enrolling conservation agreements for private landowners. If you think about how you file your taxes, oftentimes. Right? Right now it's through Turbo Tax, it's online for many people. That's, in my view, much, much easier than 20 years ago when we were filling out paper forms by ... For me, it's easily cut the number of hours in filing taxes.
But in terms of enrollment in endangered species agreements today, we're still doing it the old way, and it can be really cumbersome, it's really hard to track all of the paperwork. If we move to an electronic permitting system, we can really cut down the number of hours that it's going to take a landowner to sign up. And by lowering the "hassle barrier" for private landowners, we're much more likely to get them to voluntarily sign up to these agreements and carry out conservation measures that are needed to recover species.
So this is just a number of the many sorts of ways that technology can really help us with one of the biggest problems under the Endangered Species Act is that we simply don't have enough money to do everything. Right? But technology can really increase the efficiency of how we carry out the act, and therefore basically allow us to do more with the same amount of resources.
What I would love to see is that in the next administration, that they adopt a number of initiatives, really an entire wave of policies and reforms, that can take advantage of technology. Maybe pull in some Silicon Valley leaders, pull in people that are really savvy in technology, and think about how we can almost completely change many aspects of Endangered Species Act implementation through the use of technology.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that makes sense. And I get the sense that the application of technologies, particularly satellite technologies and remote sensing, it's becoming a more and more utilized tool by environmental policymakers, and particularly in environmental enforcement, as well as researchers. I mean, here at RFF, we have lots of people working on satellite based data. We have this VALUABLES project that's really focused on earth observations from space and definitely trying to take advantage of those tools.
Ya-Wei Li: Yup, exactly. So we see satellite images being used to track deforestation, right, in Brazil, in Indonesia and so forth. But what's really sort of fascinating, and somewhat disappointing, is that in our own country, where we have all of these permitting records that are essentially ripe for sort of citizen science, there is very, very little effort to carry out this type of monitoring and compliance work. Even though almost everyone will acknowledge that monitoring is one of the biggest shortfalls under the ESA.
Daniel Raimi: That makes sense.
So let's move now to the changes proposed to the ESA by the Trump administration. I know these have gone through at least one round of public comment already, so there have been some changes to the changes. I don't think we need to go too deep into the weeds about the changes to the changes, but can you give us a sense of what some of the most important changes are in the proposals that are currently on the table?
Ya-Wei Li: What I really want to point out is that I've been following a lot of the media stories on the regulations that came out on Monday, and a lot of what I've seen being reported is inaccurate or just plain wrong. So I just urge your listeners to sort of take with a grain of salt some of the stories that you're reading online about the consequences of these regulations. In particular, I've seen a lot of fairly apocalyptic claims of the regulations entirely uprooting the foundations of the Endangered Species Act, and I just don't believe that's correct. There are absolutely some bad elements, which we can discuss later, but there's also a lot of basic housekeeping elements that do make some marginal improvements and that clarify how the Endangered Species Act should be carried out.
So I urge sort of the listeners to think about this from, the regulations from the perspective of it's really a fairly mixed bag. There are some bad things, there are a whole bunch of things that are really boring that we won't talk about, and there is one or two things that will make some marginal improvements to conservation.
Daniel Raimi: Okay. That's a really useful perspective. Thank you.
Ya-Wei Li: Yeah. So with that said, let me answer your initial question, which is, what are some of the main elements in this set of regulations? And there's roughly four to five that I would sort of quickly highlight. The first one is, in the final regulations now, the federal government will allow itself to gather and publish information on the economic impacts of listing a species. This is super, super controversial because the decision on whether to list a species or not is supposed to be based entirely on science and biology. And it's really clear, everyone agrees, even the Trump administration, that they cannot consider economic impacts as part of the listing decision.
But what they're going to do is something somewhat different, which is they'll just publish the economic impacts for the public to see. And they're basically saying, We won't use that information as part of the decision, we just want to let the public see what the economic impacts are. And so there's two problems with that. First is, it's really hard to sort of blind yourself if you're a federal agency to the economic impacts and pretend like you're not considering it, right, when you're releasing it simultaneous with your decision. And then second of all, it really just adds more fuel to the fire. A lot of endangered species decisions are already incredibly, incredibly controversial, and putting out what I view as a fairly biased economic impact analysis, which is only going to focus on the negative economic impacts, not the positive ones, is really not going to be, I think, helpful for conservation.
The second sort of main element is the government has now removed automatic protections for species listed as what's called "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. So there's two categories by which a species can be listed, threatened or endangered. And so for the lesser category of threatened, those species will no longer get automatic protections. Instead, the government has to decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not to extend protections, and if so, which specific types of protections. So this approach creates some risk for sure that a species may not get as much protection as it needs, and it's also been quite controversial.
The third sort of big change is around what's called critical habitat, which are habitats that are needed to recover species. And sort of the short sort of story on this is that it will become much harder to designate a habitat that a species doesn't occupy as critical. And this concept of unoccupied critical habitat was precisely what was that issue in last year's Supreme Court case. Some of your listeners might remember the Weyerhaeuser case, which involved a habitat for something called a dusky gopher frog, which is this frog that lives in the Southern United States. The federal government designated unoccupied habitat for this species. It was really controversial, and the landowners brought the case all the way up to the Supreme Court. Basically, the Trump administration is responding to that by tightening up the ability to designate unoccupied critical habitat.
And then the last thing I'll just quickly mention is that there is a new definition of how far into the future is "foreseeable" when it comes to deciding whether or not to list a species as threatened. And this concept of foreseeable future has a lot of bearing on whether climate change is considered as part of a listing decision, and if so, how? So this is what you're going to see a lot in the news, and these are sort of some of the big-ticket items.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that makes sense. And it sounds like, if I'm sort of reading between the lines correctly, that most of those big ticket items would be less protective broadly speaking of species rather than more protective. Is that a fair characterization?
Ya-Wei Li: Yeah, I would say of to four sort of items I identified here, probably half of them will certainly result in less protection to some degree. I don't think it's apocalyptic in terms of completely gutting the Endangered Species Act, but absolutely, they're going to be in the direction of less protection. And then the other half is really a wait-and-see, honestly. That's sort of my most objective assessment. It really depends on how the federal government will implement these new definitions. And because the federal government has left itself so much discretion in how it interprets concepts like foreseeable future, how it issues protections for threatened species, we're really going to have to track what happens on a case-by-case basis. And that's something that my organization is going to be doing, so stay tuned for updates.
Daniel Raimi: All right, good to know. Yeah, we'll have to have you back in a year or something like that and get an update on how these things are actually being implemented.
So are there any elements in the proposals that you think are sort of positive steps? You mentioned that it was a mixed bag. Are there any that you would highlight as particularly useful changes that would improve species or habitat protections along with the others that we've talked about that might be less protective?
Ya-Wei Li: There's really nothing that I would applaud and say, This is a really sort of progressive stance to make species recovery easier and better, but there are a handful of things that will make really marginal improvements in certain aspects of the Endangered Species Act. And in particular those improvements focus on something called the Section 7 Consultation process, and so let me just explain very briefly what that means. It's actually one of the most important parts of the Endangered Species Act, and under Section 7, every federal agency is required to consult with our expert wildlife agencies to ensure that their federal actions aren't going to jeopardize a species or destroy the species' critical habitat.
And so, for example, if the Army Corps of Engineers wants to fill and dredge a federal wetland, they're going to have to speak with the Fish And Wildlife Service to ensure that the destruction of that wetland doesn't jeopardize an endangered species. Many bridge projects, many highways that are funded by the federal government, all of those are considered federal projects and they all go through this Section 7 review. Every year there's roughly 10,000 projects that go through Section 7 review, and there are a few changes that will expedite the Section 7 review process for federal agencies that try to minimize the harmful impacts of their activities.
So that's good, right, because it's essentially creating an incentive for a federal agency to say, If you will try to reduce the impacts of your activities up front, you will get a benefit by having a faster Section 7 review process, so your project can move forward, right, more easily. And that's going to be really important if we think about the need to repair our infrastructure in America, because a lot of these infrastructure-repair projects will have impacts on endangered species and their critical habitat. And whether we're talking about a Democratic administration or a Republican administration, all administrations seem to really want to focus on infrastructure repair, right, which is really needed in many parts of the United States. And so I think it is good that we do have some more efficient processes to review those types of projects.
Now, that's really sort of the main positive that I see from this rulemaking.
Daniel Raimi: All right, great. That's really helpful.
What about things on what you might think about the negative side of the ledger, so the less protective side of the ledger? You've already mentioned a few of those items, but are there any more that you'd like to mention or any additional highlighting you'd like to do?
Ya-Wei Li: Sure. I'll just mention one or two more. I think the first one I'd like to mention is that in this Section 7 Consultation process we just talked about, a developer oftentimes needs to offset the harmful effects of its projects. And under the new regulations, that developer no longer needs to provide a specific plan showing that he or she will carry out those offset measures. So it becomes very much of an honor system, and I view that as really problematic, because the federal government almost never has had enough money to to track whether commitments and promises are actually being followed up on. And under these new regulations, there's even less of a requirement to show up front that you're serious about actually following through on your promise.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that makes sense.
Okay, so we've gotten a good overview here of the proposed changes. Your organization, I think, is putting out pretty soon, or maybe you already have, a document that sort of goes into these issues in more detail. We're going to put up a link to that document on our show page once it's out, but can you just give our listeners a reference so they can go look it up by themselves?
Ya-Wei Li: Absolutely. Our website is www.policyinnovation.org, and probably in the next day or two I will have on the main page a really detailed analysis that compares all 37 changes that I identified in this rulemaking package, and identifies, are they good for conservation, are they bad for conservation, how much of a change does it really make, and what changes from the proposed rules were finalized on Monday. So I think that will be a really helpful resource for folks, and I really do strive to be as objective and neutral as possible.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, we definitely get that sense. And it sounds like it'll be a really useful document.
So last question now before we go to our final segment, which we call Top of the Stack, which is a legal question. So these proposals are certain to be challenged at court, if they haven't been already, by various state attorneys general. Do you have a view on sort of its prospects for being held up or struck down in the federal court process?
Ya-Wei Li: I do have an initial view based on my read this week of the over 300 pages that were released. There's nothing that jumps out to me as a slam-dunk legal argument. There are certainly good arguments that the state attorney generals can make, and they've already made some of these arguments in their comment letters last summer on the proposed regulations, but I do think this administration, in particular Secretary Bernhardt, has been pretty savvy legally to ensure that there is nothing that is too patently illegal here. So I don't think it's necessarily going to be a very obvious case of a whole bunch of violations.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, interesting. That makes sense.
So let's close it out now with our Top of the Stack question, so what's at the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack. And I'll get us started with an item that I think is topical for today, and it's about the sage-grouse. So the sage-grouse has been at the center of a lot of controversies over the Endangered Species Act. I've heard about it over and over again as I've traveled in the Western United States doing research on oil and gas issues, which is where I think there's been a pretty substantial conflict between those who want to develop oil and gas resources and those who are looking to preserve and protect the habitat of the sage-grouse.
I don't have a view on that issue one way or the other, again, it's outside of my area of expertise, but I did some searching and found the dancing mating rituals of the sage-grouse, and watched some videos of it, and it's really fantastic and wonderful. It's wild. The males sort of strut around, they thrust their chests out. They have these kind of leathery sacks that make this almost percussive sound like a stone that's being dropped into water when they're dancing around and showing off their feathers for the females. So it's really great. So I would encourage anyone to look up some videos of sage-grouse meeting dances when they're thinking about the Endangered Species Act this week.
But how about you, Ya-Wei? What is on the top of your stack?
Ya-Wei Li: So I will recommend a book that actually came out in 1995 on the Endangered Species Act for those of you listening that want to learn more. It's actually the best nontechnical book I've ever read on the Endangered Species Act, and I've tried to read as many books as I can on the subject. It's called Noah's Choice: The Future of the Endangered Species Act, by Mann and Plummer, and it's a book that I think is exceptional because it talks about a word we used earlier today, trade-offs. And it talks about the very difficult work of actually doing endangered species conservation on the ground when you have political and economic pressure to develop areas.
And it's not trying to vilify anyone, right? This is just saying these are day-to-day activities that we use to get to work more easily, like wider highways, housing development, but they also all have impacts on endangered species. And so how do we really balance those types of trade-offs? That is a perennially difficult question, and one that oftentimes, I think, if anyone takes too extreme of a view on the Endangered Species Act, that you sort of miss. Right? That it's all about saving everything, and every last population needs to be saved. I think in an ideal world that would be great, but I think the reality of the Endangered Species Act is that the politics are probably not going to support such an extreme approach. On the other hand, we can't just let everything go, right, and say that we're not causing all of these extinctions.
So Noah's Choice, I think, grapples with this very difficult question in a way that is better than I've seen in any other book. So it's on Amazon. You can probably buy it for $4 now, which is how much I paid for it a few months ago. And so it's a somewhat obscure book, but I think it's really good.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, great recommendation. Noah's Choice. Okay. We'll have to check it out.
So, Ya-Wei Li, thank you so much for joining us and teaching us about the Endangered Species Act and sharing your expertise. We really appreciate it.
Ya-Wei Li: Well, thanks so much for having me. This is a great podcast series, and I look forward to continuing the dialogue in the future.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Us too. Thank you.
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Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org.
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