In a rare acknowledgement of defeat, Donald Trump has withdrawn his nomination of a highly controversial figure for a top environment post.

William Perry Pendley is a conservative attorney and longtime opponent of public lands and wildlife protections who had been put forward to lead the Bureau of Land Management. It oversees 240m acres of public land and is charged with managing fossil fuel and mineral development while protecting conserved lands and endangered species.

Concerns about Pendley in the Republican-controlled Senate prompted Trump’s move. But he remains the de facto leader of the agency.

Pendley, who has been acting as the boss of the bureau since July 2019, previously represented many of the same oil, mining and ranching groups his agency is now expected to regulate. He has made light of killing at-risk species, saying in 2017 that “out west we say ‘shoot, shovel and shut up’ when it comes to the discovery of endangered species on your property”.

He also has claimed climate change does not exist. Pendley has a history of racist remarks – he has cited anti-Muslim figures and compared undocumented immigrants to cancer and blamed them for diseases, according to CNN.

The withdrawal of Pendley’s nomination was probably meant to help Republican senators from states with conservation tendencies avoid a tough vote in an election year.

A vote on Pendley’s candidacy might have jeopardized two vulnerable Republican Senate seats, as the party battles to hold control of the chamber in the November election. Cory Gardner, of Colorado, and Steve Daines, of Montana, must carefully navigate their home states’ support of conservation as they run for re-election.

Even though Trump recently signed a massive bipartisan bill to fund national parks, his administration continues to have an overwhelmingly anti-environment agenda. Last week, his administration rolled back methane pollution standards for the oil and gas industry and on Monday it announced it will sell leases for drilling in the Arctic national wildlife refuge before the end of the year. Pendley’s bureau will oversee that process.

Environmental advocates say Pendley’s appointment to the agency is one of a series of moves meant to demoralize staff and weaken their ability to uphold protective standards that frustrate industry. The Trump administration is moving the bureau’s headquarters from Washington DC to Grand Junction, Colorado, which employees say is triggering a mass exodus of expert staff and shredding morale.

Peter Jenkins, the senior counsel with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Peer), said under Pendley’s leadership the bureau has continued “an extremely strong pro-oil and gas drilling approach”, and deferred to local government on important decisions about how to manage federal public lands.

Environment and government watchdog groups, including Peer, have filed lawsuits charging that Pendley is illegally running the bureau as “acting director”, since he was never confirmed. The interior department, where the bureau is housed, is now contesting the use of that title.

The department told the Guardian on Monday that Pendley “is not, and has never been, acting BLM director”, but is deputy director for policy and programs.

That argument comes despite a record of the bureau publicly calling him the acting director, including on Twitter.

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