If you ask someone living in the United States whether they care about wildlife and plant conservation, the overwhelming response is yes. It doesn’t matter whether they live in cities or rural areas, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans.
Unfortunately, though, that widespread bipartisan support for wildlife and plants isn’t reflected by elected officials’ policy positions. In recent years, the divide has been growing between Democratic and Republican office holders. Republican legislators and Presidents have all too often become synonymous with draconian attacks on wildlife protections. If you check the voting records of the two parties, there is a clear difference.
Complacency Under a Democratic President
This has led many of us—too many of us—to falsely assume that if a Democrat is in office—particularly the presidency—all is safe for plants and wildlife. But “not as bad” is far from “great.” And great policies are what we need right now in order to address the biodiversity crisis that we currently face. We can’t afford to be complacent, to be satisfied with a president who overturns a few of the bad policies, but then implements some of his own policies that are harmful to wildlife. We are in an emergency, and we’re still backsliding under a Democratic President. We need a bold, visionary president who is willing to tackle the biodiversity crisis head on, to recognize and address the urgency of the issue. And from what we’ve seen so far, that’s not President Biden.
President Biden’s Top Priorities: Not Achievable Without Biodiversity Protections
President Biden’s core priorities include addressing climate change and environmental injustices. Both of these have deep connections to the health of our biodiversity. As global scientists recently demonstrated, climate change and biodiversity are crises that must be dealt with in tandem. The two crises have reinforcing feedback loops—if climate change worsens, the biodiversity crisis worsens; if the biodiversity crisis worsens, climate change worsens. These two crises won’t be solved in isolation, they must be solved together.
And the loss of biodiversity has significant environmental justice implications with a disproportionate impact on communities of color due to decades of environmentally racist policies. In fact, the United Nations recently recognized that access to healthy, sustainable ecosystems is a human right. Communities rely on healthy biodiversity for clear air, clean water, abundant medicines, buffers from climate change, recreation opportunities, spiritual upliftment, and more. But low-income people and communities of color are hurt first and worst when biodiversity is lost because policies at all levels of government benefit white, high-income communities.
Despite the urgency of the biodiversity crisis and despite these core priorities, wildlife protection under this Administration has largely seen only incremental improvements outweighed by anti-wildlife policies that significantly set back progress in biodiversity conservation.
Biden and Weakening Protections for Plants and Wildlife
The Trump Administration rolled back protections for endangered species during his tenure. Thankfully, Biden’s U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service prioritized a revision of these regulations. However, it appears likely that at least some of these regulations will remain in place, despite the environmental community’s request that these rules be rescinded in their entirety.
These aren’t the only Trump-era policies that are being held over by the Biden Administration. Gray wolves are a keystone species (they are linked to the health and well-being of a large number of other species) and a part of our natural heritage that have begun their recovery thanks to the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, their endangered species protections were removed prematurely under the Trump Administration. And instead of granting gray wolves emergency listing status, the Biden Administration has defended this Trump-era policy in court. Biden is also continuing to keep the Trump Administration policy in place which allows the killing of bears and wolves inside federal lands located in Alaska.
It doesn’t stop there. The Biden Administration is failing to reinstate protections against lead ammunition—which poisons wildlife, such as the Bald Eagle that feed on animals shot with lead bullets—on federal lands. It is failing to protect the most endangered whale species on the planet—the North Atlantic Right Whale. The Biden Administration is defending a lawsuit—a holdover from the previous administration—in order to prevent stronger rules to protect the whale. Biden is also keeping in place highly questionable Trump-era decisions on pesticides, allowing toxic pesticides to continue to be used, despite their danger to animals—from humans to bees.
And it isn’t only that the Biden Administration is defending poor policies from the Trump era or refusing to overturn these policies, it’s that the Biden Administration is itself actively issuing rules that create new harms for wildlife. Biden is allowing increased grazing at Point Reyes National Seashore at the expense of native wildlife. He is proposing to allow wind power projects to more easily kill bald eagles. He has failed to meet the 2021 deadline to protect more than 60 imperiled species. And, despite pledging to ban oil and gas leasing on public lands, he is demonstrating strong support for the oil and gas industry—granting more public land drilling permits per month than Trump over the same period, releasing a plan that instead increases royalties and encourages more drilling, and declining to shut down the Dakota Access and Line 3 pipelines.
There is more to say, but the pattern should be clear. A Democratic President in no way guarantees that wildlife is safe or that we’re making the type of progress that is essential to addressing the biodiversity crisis.
Where Do We Go from Here?
We need the Biden Administration to recognize the urgency of the biodiversity crisis and its impact on climate change, as well as, low-income and communities of color. Without this fundamental understanding, biodiversity conservation will not receive the attention that it deserves. Not only must he overturn the bad wildlife policies, but he must advance pro-active and meaningful conservation.
The President must issue an Executive Order marshalling the resources of the federal agencies to combat the biodiversity crisis.
Initiatives such as 30 by 30 to protect 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 is a lofty goal—but it is also one that could easily be subverted as ranching and other denuded lands are “counted” against the total.
There is no shortage of needed new policies to protect plants and wildlife and to ensure that low-income and communities of color equally receive the benefits of biodiversity conservation. Among other priorities, we need to:
- Implement greater co-management with Indigenous Peoples of our federal lands
- Fully fund the Endangered Species Act and other plant and wildlife laws
- Restore habitats and establish connectivity and corridors for wildlife, including restoring native tree cover in communities working for environmental justice
- Eliminate wildlife trapping, particularly on public lands
- Strengthen pesticide regulations in order to protect pollinators
- Secure greater protections for highly imperiled species such as whales, including the North Atlantic Right Whales and Southern Resident Killer Whales, Hawaiian plants, freshwater mussels, bony fish of the Southwest, and more.
Without these actions, we won’t stem the biodiversity crisis. And the impact to humans will continue to become ever more severe.
We need our President Biden to step up and become the President that Mother Nature (humans included) deserves.
Leda Huta is the Executive Director of the Endangered Species Coalition