The two populations of Columbia Basin salmon listed as endangered and the 11 populations that are threatened under the Endangered Species Act will not be immediately affected by changes in the act that were finalized on Aug. 12.

But state agencies and environmental groups are already expressing concerns that protections for species that become listed under the new rules—or those that drop from endangered to threatened—will be weakened when the changes take effect in mid-September.

The changes are designed to “increase transparency and effectiveness” a news release from the Department of Interior says. “The revisions finalized with this rulemaking fit squarely within the President’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals,” U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said in the release.

Penny Becker, diversity manager and policy lead for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, sent NW Fishletter a list of her agency’s concerns with the rule changes.

The new rules remove a “key phrase” that previously said decisions would be based on best available data “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.” Interior’s announcement states, “The ESA directs that determinations to add or remove a species from the lists of threatened or endangered species be based solely on the best available scientific and commercial information, and these will remain the only criteria on which listing determinations will be based.”

The new regulations also end automatic protections for species added to the threatened list. Instead of getting the same protections as endangered species, protections for threatened species—including those being downgraded from endangered—can be determined on a case-by-case basis.

In addition, federal agencies will be restricted from considering effects on species beyond the “foreseeable future,” a term which is not defined but which could sidestep long-term impacts from threats like climate change.

The new rules also make it harder to designate areas as critical habitat when that habitat is not being used by the species.

In a statement sent to NW Fishletter, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Assistant Director Gary Frazer said that the ESA was revised to make it clearer, more effective, and more transparent to the public.

“Conserving species is very much a function of trying to reconcile their needs with the needs of humans,” Frazer said.

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.