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Monarch Butterflies

Adena Rissman, associate professor in the Forest and Wildlife Ecology Department at UW-Madison, said the monarch butterfly could be added to the federal list of endangered and threatened species sometime in the future. But they could see less protections. 

Q: What Wisconsin species could be impacted by the federal changes to the Endangered Species Act?

A: President Donald Trump’s administration last week announced several changes to how the Endangered Species Act is enforced, which could weaken protections for plants, animals and other species added to the endangered and threatened species lists in the future.

Enacted in 1973, the Endangered Species Act provides protections for endangered and threatened species, such as making it illegal to harm animals or modify their habitats. The law has been credited with bringing back the bald eagle, grizzly bear and American alligator, among other species.

The changes will have no effect on animals currently on the federal list of endangered or threatened species, but species added in the future — including at-risk animals in Wisconsin that could get added — may have less stringent protections, said Adena Rissman, associate professor in the Forest and Wildlife Ecology Department at UW-Madison.

One of the changes would allow for an economic analysis of the cost of protecting a particular species. This price tag would not factor into whether a species is added to a protection list, but Rissman said some fear publicizing the price could cause people to think the Endangered Species Act is “too expensive.”

Another major change is that new threatened species will no longer automatically have all of the protections that endangered species do, Rissman said. Before, threatened and endangered species were treated the same. Rissman said this could give businesses more power to modify the habitats of threatened species.

Critics also worry that the potential future impact climate change could have on species’ habitats won’t fully be considered under the new rules, she said.

While weakened future protections are possible, Rissman said, it is important to note that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of the agencies in charge of implementing the Endangered Species Act, could choose to provide the same protections as it did before.

“The agency could do less than it used to do, or it could decide to do basically the same,” she said. “But this gives it the option to do less.”

In terms of Wisconsin, the federal changes do not apply to plants and animals on the state Department of Natural Resources’ list of endangered and threatened species, Rissman said. Species can be added to the DNR’s list and receive state protections in the same way as before.

But there are some species in Wisconsin that could be added to the federal endangered species list in the future, Rissman said. In some ways, the federal protections are stronger than the state ones, she said.

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Right now, of the 103 animals on Wisconsin’s endangered and threatened species list, only 11 are federally listed, Rissman said.

“For species that are already federally recognized as endangered, there’s no change,” she said. “But there are a number of species that are very rare or recognized by the state of Wisconsin as being endangered that — even if they go onto the federal list — they may not get the same protections that they would have (before).”

One of these species is the monarch butterfly, Rissman said. While the butterfly is not rare enough to be listed on Wisconsin’s endangered species list, she said the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing it. If it does become federally listed, Rissman said it may see weaker protections because of the new rules.

Grassland birds and species that rely on young forests for their habitats could also be added to the federal list at some point, she said.

Other animals at risk are those that are considered “species of concern,” meaning they are not endangered or threatened yet, but they could be in the future, Rissman said.

Some other Wisconsin species that are not federally listed, but Rissman said could be in the future include:

  • Black tern, a bird currently listed as endangered by the DNR.
  • Wood turtle, listed as threatened by the DNR.
  • Henslow’s sparrow, listed as threatened by the DNR.
  • Blanding’s turtle, listed as a species of concern.
  • Baird’s sparrow, listed as a species of concern.
  • Golden-winged warbler, a bird listed as a species of concern on the state and federal level.

Rissman said the best-case scenario would be if animals didn’t need to be listed as endangered or threatened.

“One of the best things that we can do is help keep species off the threatened and endangered species list by investing more in conservation and restoration so we don’t have to use these regulatory approaches except when they’re really necessary,” Rissman said.

— Emily Hamer

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Emily Hamer is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She joined the paper in April 2019 and was formerly an investigative reporting intern at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.