Sage Grouse Forest Service

In this April 20, 2013 file photo, male greater sage grouse perform mating rituals for a female grouse, not pictured, on a lake outside Walden, Colo.

Idaho’s four Republican senators and congressmen hailed the changes the Trump administration plans to make to the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, changes critics worry could undermine efforts to protected threatened species.

“These revisions to the ESA are welcome news in Idaho and across the West,” U.S. Sen. Jim Risch said in an email. “The Endangered Species Act should be consistent and science-based, and this work by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service is an encouraging step to improve the ESA’s functionality for conservation, recovery, wildlife managers, and rural communities.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, who represents eastern and central Idaho, also said he supports the changes.

“The Endangered Species Act is an important law, especially in states with large amounts of public lands," he said. "However, the law has not been reauthorized since 1992 and has been morphed into a tool used for litigation. Too often, it is used to control land and water instead of conserving at risk species. That is why I applaud (Interior) Secretary (David) Bernhardt for his work to update ESA. Putting the focus on improving habitat using science based approaches will greatly benefit conservation in the west. It also satisfies several of the recommendations the House Interior Appropriations Committee wrote into annual appropriations bills during my time as chairman. This update is overdue and I hope Congress will use this opportunity to address ESA reauthorization to continue the momentum from these reforms."

The new rules are expected to be published in the Federal Register this week and go into effect 30 days after that, the New York Times reported. Under the enforcement changes, officials for the first time will be able to publicly attach a cost to saving an animal or plant, according to the Associated Press. Blanket protection for creatures newly listed as threatened would be removed. The action also could allow the government to disregard the possible impact of climate change.

“I strongly support today’s announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to bring long-due reforms to the Endangered Species Act,” said U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo. “The improvements announced today will provide greater clarity to farmers, ranchers, water users and landowners in how the law is administered, yield important benefits to ecological health and ensure the efficacy of the law for years to come.”

Many western Republicans have long objected to federal land-use policies and environmental protections that they view as overly restrictive and detrimental to the economy. The Trump administration has generally been friendlier to these sort of concerns and to industry groups, and less concerned about climate change and environmental protection, than was the Obama administration.

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“The (Endangered Species Act) has had a poor track record in delisting species and an overly bureaucratic process creating divisions in the West,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Russ Fulcher, who represents Idaho’s First Congressional District. “I applaud (Trump) and (Bernhardt) for increasing transparency and continuing to fix this broken law.”

Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, said the proposed changes to the threatened species designation would “make the designation ceremonial only, without any real protections.”

“In addition, they want to make it harder to get species listed under the Endangered Species Act,” Molvar said. “The beauty of the Endangered Species act is it requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to make species protection decisions based only on science. Yet (the) new regulations would be economics explicitly a consideration, and maybe one that overrides the survival of the species. And that’s wrong, and it’s illegal.”

Molvar said he expects the fate of the regulations to be decided in court; the attorneys general of California and Massachusetts have said they plan to sue the Trump administration.

Molvar said he is particularly concerned about the Gunnison sage grouse, which lives in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah and has seen its numbers drop sharply, losing protection as a threatened species. Molvar also said he is concerned about the future of the greater sage grouse, which has also seen its numbers and range drop sharply but still has habitat in 11 western states, including across southern Idaho. The number of sage grouse has been dropping sharply for years as wildfire and human activity take up greater chunks of the sagebrush desert the birds call home; in Idaho sage grouse numbers have dropped 52 percent since 2016, the Idaho Statesman reported Sunday.

“In addition, it is becoming increasingly clear that the greater sage grouse … is in trouble as well and is going to need the protections of the Endangered Species Act, and throwing up roadblocks to endangered species listing will prevent this bird from getting the protection it needs to avoid extinction if these trends continue,” Molvar said.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.