Feb 5, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Jon Lamson | Illustration by Xixi Qin

After four years of the Trump administration rolling back the powers of the Endangered Species Act, President Joe Biden promises to bring about a drastic change.

On the day of his inauguration, Biden issued a sweeping executive order focused on public health, the environment, and the climate crisis. He declared an immediate review of “all existing regulations, orders, guidance documents, policies, and any other similar agency actions” undertaken by the Trump administration.

In the previous administration, Secretaries of the Interior Ryan Zinke (2017-2019) and David Bernhardt (2019-2021) led a drive to dismantle the regulatory power of the Endangered Species Act, which is one of the most powerful tools at the government’s disposal for preserving national biodiversity and ecosystems. Individual species, from grey wolves to the Hawaiian hawk, were rapidly stripped of protections, while the protections offered for listed species were also affected. Multiple rules broadly limited the definition of critical habitat, while a consideration of economic impacts was introduced into the listing process.

According to an Oct. 29 press release by the Department of the Interior announcing the delisting of the grey wolf, “no administration in history has recovered more imperiled species in their first term than the Trump Administration.”

Set to replace former oil lobbyist Bernhardt (who resigned on Jan. 20) as Secretary of the Interior is Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.). Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a 35th-generation New Mexican, will make history if she is confirmed as the first Indigenous Secretary of the Interior, a position that oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Education.

Haaland, a strong environmental advocate and a supporter of the Green New Deal, will also have broad jurisdiction over about 20% of all United States land (including large portions of Colorado), and control over the Endangered Species Act. As established in the 1973 legislation, a species classification is determined by the Secretary of the Interior, who also has the power to add or remove a species from the endangered species list.

However, simply reversing the actions taken by the Trump Administration will not be a straightforward process. In a Jan. 28 letter sent to an Earthjustice attorney, the Fish and Wildlife Service (a bureau of the Interior) defended the delisting of the grey wolf, stating that “our delisting action recognizes the successful recovery of one of the most iconic species to our nation’s natural heritage.”

While reviewing the wide array of actions taken by Trump’s Interior Department promises to be a difficult task, Haaland was full of optimism while accepting her nomination in December.

“We will ensure that the Interior will once again be driven by science,” she said. “I will be fierce for all of us, for our planet, for all of our protected land, and I’m honored and ready to serve.”

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