As political officials at the US Department of the Interior were settling into their new jobs in April 2017, a conservative lawyer named Jonathan Wood started a campaign of emails and calls over a pair of petitions he had filed on behalf of cattle ranchers and business interests.

The petitions asked the department to roll back a key regulation under the Endangered Species Act. The regulation, known as the blanket 4(d) rule, provides threatened species with strong protections, but is also reviled by ranchers, mining interests and developers. Like his clients, Wood, a senior lawyer at the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), wanted to get rid of it.

Ranchers oppose the law because it can limit their ability to access grazing resources on public and private lands and control predators like grizzly bears and grey wolves.

Waging a Quiet War

“It has been a little over a year since the petitions were filed and I was hoping to find out whether they’re being considered, or if there’s any additional info I can provide to help the administration make its decision,” Wood wrote to officials, according to documents obtained by the Guardian through a Freedom of Information Act request.

After multiple inquiries over many months, Wood ultimately got an audience with Daniel Jorjani, a former adviser to the billionaire Koch brothers who now serves as the interior department’s top lawyer. According to public records, Wood and Jorjani scheduled a meeting on 9 April 2018 to discuss in detail Wood’s petitions to roll back protections for threatened species.

Little more than three months after Jorjani and Wood met, the interior department would officially unveil a proposal to do what Wood and his clients wanted. The department publicly announced in July 2018 that it planned to eliminate the blanket 4(d) rule as part of a broader effort to water down federal enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. In doing so, the agency garnered national headlines and sent shockwaves through the wildlife conservation community, which denounced the move as an assault on a bedrock environmental law.

The wildlife conservation community denounced the move as an assault on a bedrock environmental law.

But Wood’s efforts are part of a bigger picture. Across the US today, a quiet war is taking place.

On the one hand, environmental activists, lawyers and citizens are struggling to continue the work begun over a century ago by conservationists: protecting wildlife and the environment, and keeping water clean, species intact and wilderness open.

On the other, a network of conservative lawyers, activists and business interests are determined to pursue what they see as equally important American values: the protection of individual rights and the rolling back of government regulations – especially those relating to commercial enterprise.

Founded by Reaganites

Their commitment runs deep. Wood has spoken about the childhood experiences that drew him to the cause, describing how he witnessed his father struggling in the real estate business.

“My dad had this dream, from as far back as I can remember. He had a rather large ranch in Texas that he wanted to develop and build small family homes,” Wood explained in a filmed interview for the Liberty Forum. “And when I was 10 he finally decided to see if he could pursue his dream.”

His father went to the county to see what permits would be required, Wood recounted. “He came back with a stack of documents that seemed almost as big as I was at the time, and became completely discouraged.”

This experience appears to have had a lasting impression on Wood, and he has made a career out of campaigning for the unfettered property interests of private landowners, major industry groups and more.

Wood’s firm, the little-known but influential PLF, is a non-profit law firm with about $52m (£40.4m) in net assets as of 2017 and 73 attorneys and staff dedicated to fighting against federal laws and regulations like the Endangered Species Act.

Wood has made a career out of campaigning for the unfettered property interests of private landowners.

Founded in 1973 by a group composed mainly of Ronald Reagan’s former staff, and headquartered in Sacramento, California, PLF describes itself as “the first public interest law firm dedicated to the principles of individual rights and limited government”. With deep connections to commercial interests, including big agriculture, PLF has long enjoyed funding from some of the wealthiest entities and individuals in the US, who are drawn to the firm’s libertarian free-market philosophy. According to a 1999 article in the Washington Post, Richard Mellon Scaife, the conservative billionaire heir to the Mellon family fortune who died in 2014, provided the group with “at least half the group’s budget in its early years”.

ExxonMobil and Charles Koch

Over the years PLF has received support from ExxonMobil and a slew of arch-conservative foundations. The Adolph Coors Foundation – founded by the Colorado-based family of beer brewing fame – provided the group with at least $580,000 between 2010 and 2016, according to tax documents seen by the Guardian. In that same time period, PLF took more than $600,000 from the Searle Freedom Trust, a foundation set up by Daniel Searle, a now-deceased Illinois-based executive involved in the pharmaceutical and agriculture industries. It has also received donations from entities like the Charles Koch Foundation and Donors Capital Fund, a donor-advised fund that has been described as the “dark-money ATM of the conservative movement”.

Investigative journalist Jane Mayer claims these wealthy foundations, and others like them, have spent huge sums of money in recent decades funding a network of conservative legal, academic and political institutions across the US. According to Mayer’s book, Dark Money, they have done so in an effort to challenge “the widely accepted post-second world war consensus that an activist government was a force for public good. Instead, they [argue] for ‘limited government’, drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry, particularly in the environmental arena.”

The Endangered Species Act, a powerful environmental statute that grants the government immense authority to limit industrial development, was always a key target of this effort to rollback the regulatory state. The law is anathema to some conservatives because it has the power to restrict human activity on entire landscapes in order to protect species like the grey wolf, the grizzly bear and the bald eagle. If an endangered or threatened species lives in your neck of the woods, the US government may no longer allow you to graze cattle, drill for oil, or develop real estate wherever you please.

The Endangered Species Act is anathema to some conservatives.

The Pacific Legal Foundation is not the only right-leaning legal group that targets the Endangered Species Act – others include the Mountain States Legal Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, both of which have received money from some of the same conservative funders that back PLF.

Patient. And Playing the Long Game

PLF’s goal is to methodically change US laws in ways that weaken government power, according to John Echeverria, a professor at the Vermont Law School and a long-time observer of PLF. Its ultimate objective, he says, is to overturn long-standing precedents that prop up statutes like the Endangered Species Act, or at least render such laws ineffective on constitutional and procedural groups.

“They are very patient,” he says, “and they are focused on the long-term.”

In a 2017 testimony submitted to the House natural resources committee, Wood said the act “is known as the ‘pit bull’ of environmental law. And for good reason. As many economic-development and infrastructure projects proponents have learned the hard way, once the Endangered Species Act sinks its teeth into you, it does not let go easily.” In other writings, Wood has criticised the law’s “burdensome – and controversial – regulations on property owners” and the “immense costs” of its “command-and-control approach”.

To combat what it views as intrusive government overreach, PLF has filed lawsuits against the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and other government agencies that enforce the Endangered Species Act.

The Endangered Species Act is known as the “pit bull” of environmental law. “Once [it] sinks its teeth into you, it does not let go easily.”

PLF’s attorneys have sued on behalf of the Texas Farm Bureau to strip protections from a small bird called the black-capped vireo. They are suing on behalf of New Mexico livestock interests to roll back critical habitat protections for the endangered jaguar. They have sued on behalf of Idaho ranchers to challenge the federal government’s greater sage grouse conservation plans. They have filed a flurry of briefs in support of other anti-Endangered Species Act lawsuits. And they regularly write comment pieces, appear in the media, and testify in front of legislative bodies to attack the law.

As of 2017, according to tax forms, PLF was working on more than 15 cases meant to roll back, block, weaken or otherwise alter state and federal wildlife protections, many of them on behalf of farmers, ranchers and landowners in the West.

Open Season

With Big Ag and other corporate interests by its side, PLF’s attorneys employ a variety of tactics to combat the Endangered Species Act.

One tactic is its use of petitions and lawsuits to try to force the FWS to remove specific species from the endangered species list. The organisation has been working since at least 2014 to force the agency to delist the imperilled coastal California gnatcatcher, a small grey songbird that lives in coastal sage scrub in the southern part of California. On behalf of a group of property owners, agriculture groups and other business interests, PLF filed a lawsuit against FWS, arguing that the threatened gnatcatcher is not a scientifically-valid subspecies and so is not entitled to protection under the Endangered Species Act. This is just a taste of the litigation PLF regularly pursues.

The organisation has petitioned or litigated to remove, weaken or deny protections for many different species, including the golden parakeet, the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, the black-capped vireo, the lesser long-nosed bat, the gypsum wild-buckwheat, the wood stork, the West Indian manatee and the wolverine – a highly imperilled animal that is threatened by both human development and the climate crisis. PLF brought a number of these cases on behalf of agriculture industry clients, including the Farm Bureau Federation and ranchers’ associations.

PLF’s lawyers are some of the most tenacious opponents of endangered species protections in the US. By picking sympathetic clients, and bringing cases in different jurisdictions across the country, the group is working hard to fundamentally alter, if not debilitate, America’s most famous wildlife conservation law, which currently protects some 1,600 imperilled species in the US in an era when wildlife extinction is on the rise globally.

Patrick Parenteau, a professor at the Vermont Law School who specialises in endangered species issues, calls PLF “a mouthpiece for agriculture and other industries that are the primary cause of habitat loss and species endangerment”.

But Jim Huffman, an emeritus dean and professor at Lewis and Clark Law School, as well a member of the conservative Federalist Society, argues that the PLF should be seen as a pro-property rights “counterbalance” to environmental litigation groups like the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund.

“They, like the environmental litigation groups, are out to establish precedent or overturn precedent,” he says. “They, like the environmental litigation groups, select their cases based on what they perceive to be the likelihood of establishing useful precedent.”

The PLF, for its part, has been celebrating some major victories in the Trump era. When the interior department finalised its Endangered Species Act rollbacks, Wood called the move the “most significant gain for property rights under the Endangered Species Act in decades”.

PLF also explicitly took credit for the elimination of the blanket 4(d) rule, though it did not mention its inside access to top Interior department political appointees, such as Jorjani.

“There is a plan at work,” says Echeverria. “They are pushing cutting edge conservative arguments as the judiciary becomes increasingly conservative.” And they are working the inside track in Washington as well.

PLF declined to answer questions for this article.

“At this time we do not have anyone to speak on this issue,” wrote Kate Pomeroy, PLF’s media director, in an email.