08/16/2019

The Trump Administration Rolls Back The Endangered Species Act

7:56 minutes

a bald eagle, wings extended, screeching, at the top of a pine tree
A bald eagle perched in a tree. Credit: Warren Metcalf, via Shutterstock.

This week, the Trump administration announced it would change the way the Endangered Species Act is implemented starting in September. Regulators would soon be able to conduct economic assessments to decide whether a species should be protected or not.

Since it was signed into law in 1973, government agencies such as the United States Fish and Wildlife Services have protected the over 1,650 species that have been listed as threatened or endangered. The legislative overhaul would not only make it easier to remove species from the endangered list, but it would also weaken protections for species that remain. 

Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science reporter for FiveThiryEight, joins Ira to discuss the new roll back as well as other science stories from the week, such as the first human CRISPR trials, the fungus reeking havoc on banana plantations and the truth behind the oldest people in the world, in this week’s News Roundup.

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Segment Guests

Maggie Koerth-Baker

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science reporter with FiveThirtyEight.com. She’s based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. 

Later in the hour, it’s a lightning-palooza. We’re going to meet the researchers who are probing the high voltage mysteries of our atmosphere. You think you knew everything there was about lightning? Oh no. We’ll talk about what’s still left to know. 

But first, this week, the Trump administration announced they would change the way the Endangered Species Act is implemented starting in September. Regulators would soon be able to conduct economic assessment to decide whether a species should be protected or not. The legislative overhaul would not only make it easier to take species off the endangered list, but it would also weaken protections for ones that remain on the list. 

Joining me now to talk about that and other stories from the week in science is Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science reporter at FiveThirtyEight. Welcome back, Maggie. 

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Hi. Thanks for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: So this is a new way of evaluating endangered species, different from what we already have in place, right? 

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Right. So historically, the process of adding animals onto the Endangered Species Protection Act list has been really all about scientific evidence. You know, what data suggests that the species is in danger? How endangered is it? How important is it to the functioning of the ecosystem, that kind of thing? 

But now under these new rules, the regulators will also be allowed to consider cold hard cash, like the money that a timber company might not make if it can’t cut trees in a certain patch of forest. And these regulations, they also now change the timelines so that the risks have to be in the, quote, unquote, “foreseeable future,” which is this kind of vague designation that could really be used to prevent protection from longer-term risks. 

IRA FLATOW: So I imagine that scientists are not very happy about this. 

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: No. Some of the scientists have said that under these new timelines, for instance, it would be almost impossible to designate the polar bear as endangered because the sea-ice loss in the Arctic is a longer-term problem than a short-term one. 

IRA FLATOW: Oh, details, details. Let’s move onto the next one– the first human CRISPR clinical trials are starting in the US. Tell us about that. 

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah. So this week, scientists announced the beginning of these first official clinical trials. They’re going to be using CRISPR to treat blood disease, cancer, and inherited blindness. 

And you probably are remembering that last year there was a Chinese scientist who had announced that he’d edited the genes of embryos using CRISPR technology. These trials are different than that. 

For one thing, they’re being done in adults and children, not embryos. So these changes that are being made aren’t things that could be inherited or passed on to future generations. 

And of course, there’s also the whole like legitimacy aspect. You know, this is having ethics oversight and transparency. And it’s not secret under the table experiments. 

But we still don’t know how well this is going to work. Science News’s Tina Hesman Saey had a really good article where she pointed out that other kinds of promising genetic therapies haven’t turned out to be useful in practice as they were in theory. You know, people have died during gene therapy trials. And in one case, treatment seemed to help blind people see better, but then the effects didn’t last. 

IRA FLATOW: So this is going to be targeted for blindness? 

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: One of the things it’s going to be targeted at is blindness and also blood disease and cancer. 

IRA FLATOW: Any concerns about they may be off target? You know, CRISPR had problems with that 

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, that is definitely a concern. And it’s something where there’s a lot of experimentation. You know, we have a lot of these things that work pretty well in theory, work pretty well in mice. And then you get into humans, and it’s something else entirely. 

IRA FLATOW: Hmm. Let’s move on to Colombia. This is it this is a story we’ve been talking about for years, it seems to be finally happening that Colombia has a state of national emergency about bananas. 

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Right. So the past is prologue in the fruit industry. Back in the 1950s, we lost nearly the entire banana industry when a fungus came through and killed off whole plantations. It completely shifted the way we eat bananas. We use a different variety now than your grandparents did. 

And it seems like the same thing is happening. There’s this fungus called Tropical Race 4 that has killed trees all over Asia and Africa. And it was first reported in Latin America in Colombia in June. And now those infections have been confirmed. 

And if you like bananas, this should be a pretty scary thing. There’s no known resistant variety to replace the current banana that we use. And this Tropical Race 4 fungus, it can live in soil for decades. So once a plantation is infested, it’s pretty much done for. 

IRA FLATOW: Because we all use one banana, right? Just about everybody eats the same banana? 

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah. This is a function of monoculture. You know, there have started to be different other varieties of bananas that have turned up in stores in recent years, but predominantly we are using one variety of banana that is grown on hundreds of thousands of acres of land. And that makes it kind of an easy target for illness. 

IRA FLATOW: And there’s no way to really stop the fungus, right? 

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: No. There’s not. It spreads incredibly easily. This is kind of one of those things where even walking in an infected plantation and then going to a different plantation could spread it. 

IRA FLATOW: The Cavendish banana may be soon gone. 

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Mhm. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, maybe we’ll get some of those little bananas– 

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: I like the little ones. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. They’re very tasty. And who eats the whole banana anyway? OK. Well, I’m moving on to our last topic. There was an article from Live Science that said the communities with the oldest people in the world– like Sardinia and Italy and Okinawa– might not actually be as old as we think they are. What’s going on there? 

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Ha, ha. So I’m sure you’ve heard about the blue zones– you know, these places where lots of exceptionally old people live. And there’s been all of these studies about, what are they eating? How are they living? How can we replicate what they do? 

And there’s this recent study that came out that was finding that these blue zones, these places, not only have some of the oldest people in the world, they also have lower than average life expectancies for everybody else. So you have this combination of a few extremely old people and then a lot of people who aren’t living as long as other places that don’t have the extremely old people. 

And that’s starting to make some researchers sort of wonder what’s going on. And one of the theories is that this could be an issue of faulty record keeping or even outright fraud. 

So the examples that they’re sort of bringing up around this are that, you know, in the United States, we used to have a ton of supercentenarians like these people who lived past 100. But as we got better record keeping state by state, the number of supercentenarians dropped dramatically. So in each state, the number of people over the age of 110 dropped by 69% to 82% when birth records started being kept better for those states. 

And that could be part of what’s going on. Because when you’re talking about supercentenarians right now, you’re still talking about people born before modern record keeping. There’s also transcription errors that could be happening. There’s also fraud that could be happening. 

So earlier this year, for instance, there was an investigation that looked into the story of Jeanne Calment who was supposedly 122 when she died in France and has kind of long held this record of the oldest living human. But this new research suggests that she might have actually been the daughter of the real Jeanne Calment who took over her mother’s identity to get a pension. 

So there are lots of reasons why we might be reporting people as older than they actually are. And so a lot of this research into blue zones may or may not actually be all that useful for anyone. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, as I say, details, details. Thank you. 

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Thank you. 

IRA FLATOW: Maggie Koerth-Baker is senior science reporter at FiveThirtyEight.

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