Under the 1973 law, federal agencies cannot fund, permit or take actions that would destroy or severely damage critical habitats. It doesn't restrict activities on private land unless government approval or financial support is involved.
The Trump rule's habitat definition was “unclear, confusing and inconsistent with the conservation purposes” of the law, the Fish and Wildlife Service and Marine Fisheries Service said in a joint statement.
It prevented agencies from selecting areas that don't presently meet a species' needs but might in the future as a result of restoration work or natural changes, the statement said. Global warming is expected to alter many landscapes and waters, attracting species that migrate from places no longer suitable for them.
Habitat degradation and loss is the primary reason animals and plants become endangered, the agencies said, adding that they should be able to designate critical spaces “in a manner that protects listed species' habitats and supports their recovery.”
Environmental groups applauded the rule reversal, which comes as scientists warn of a worldwide biodiversity plunge. A 2019 United Nations report said about 1 million plants and animals are in danger of extinction, with species loss accelerating tens or hundreds of times faster than before.
“It’s welcome news, but there is still more work to be done to shore up the (Endangered Species Act) so that imperiled wildlife have every fighting chance to survive and thrive," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife.
Jonathan Wood, vice president of law and policy with the Property and Environment Research Center, a self-described “free market environmentalism” group, said rescinding the rule would discourage private conservation efforts.
“Critical habitat designations penalize landowners who conserve or restore habitat and, thus, are unhelpful in areas that require substantial restoration to support the species,” Wood said. “The agency should be providing incentives for landowners to protect and restore habitat, not alienating potential conservation partners.”
He represented forest landowners in a lawsuit that prompted a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that led the Trump administration to craft its habitat definition.
The case involved the highly endangered dusky gopher frog, which survives in just a few Mississippi ponds.
The Fish and Wildlife Service designated 1,500 acres (607 hectares) in neighboring Louisiana as critical habitat for the frog even though none lived there. Environmentalists said more space was essential for the frog but the landowner, timber company Weyerhaeuser Co., called it an unjust land grab.
The court ordered the government to decide what constitutes suitable habitat for the frog before designating areas as critical to save them.