New Bill to Let Trump Steamroll Illinois Endangered Species

A short-eared owl. Photo by Gregory Smith.
Credit: Photo by Gregory Smith.

Endangered species have it tough. But life may get even tougher for those living in Illinois if a bill now active in the state legislature makes it into law.

As you may know, the U.S. Endangered Species Act protects federally recognized (or “listed”) threatened and endangered species across the country and is one of our nation’s most effective environmental laws—having saved 99 percent of listed species from extinction. Sadly, that law is now under attack by the Trump administration, including David Bernhardt, the former oil and gas lobbyist Trump has picked to lead the Interior Department—the agency in charge of protecting land-based endangered species.

Luckily, Illinois, like many states, has its own endangered species law, which adds a second layer of protection for federally listed species. Importantly, the law also provides protection to other vulnerable species in the state that haven’t yet been recognized by the U.S. government. These “state-listed” species include magnificent animals like the Short-eared owl, the Ornate box turtle, and the Yellow-headed blackbird.

An Ornate Box Turtle.

Worryingly, the bill (HB2425/SB1336) now being considered by Illinois legislators puts those safeguards (and those species) at great risk by giving the Trump administration a new way to smash state species protections. Specifically, the bill eliminates protective state permitting requirements for any species subject to a vaguely defined “federal conservation agreement.”

To see how this could work, let’s say an oil and gas company wants to drill for oil in Illinois right on top of key habitat for the short-eared owl. Under current law, this means it would likely have to get a state permit designed to ensure the drilling wouldn’t harm the owl’s survival as a species. But under the new law, they could call up their friend Secretary Bernhardt to get a flimsy conservation agreement with nominal protections for the owl (perhaps a bird feeder on the oil derrick), and—poof!—the state permitting requirements disappear!

An upright oil derrick at an oil drilling site. Photo by Joshua Doubek.

The bill has other bad provisions too. For example, it would give Big Ag a seat on the state board responsible for the protection of endangered species—thereby diluting the decision-making power of the board’s scientists and wildlife experts equipped with the scientific knowledge to determine how best to protect vulnerable Illinois species. It also attempts to complicate and slow down the process of automatic state listing of new federally listed species.

At a time when Illinois is poised to be a national leader on clean energy and environmental issues generally, this bill represents a HUGE step backwards. NRDC will be fighting to make sure that this bill doesn’t make it into law, and we hope Illinois legislators heed the call and don’t hand the Trump administration a brand-new tool to harm Illinois’s wildlife.