Educational Series: Saving Vanishing Wildlife From Oblivion

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A bald eagle soaring over a wild river; a mother grizzly bear and her cubs roaming through one of the last great tracts of unbroken forest; a sea otter frolicking through a coastal kelp forest; all of these awe-inspiring sights were at some point in imminent danger of vanishing forever. The fact that these and hundreds of other incredible plant and animal species still survive today is largely thanks to one of the most important environmental laws ever passed in the United States: the Endangered Species Act.

Up through the middle of the twentieth century, it was perfectly legal in the United States to kill most plant and animal species or destroy their habitat, even if that meant the entire species might disappear and never recover. For thousands of years, North America’s rich plant and animal life had lived in balance with Native American societies, who had found ways to utilize the land’s resources without endangering other species. However, once European colonists arrived in what would become the United States, pressures like overhunting quickly exterminated animals like the passenger pigeon, Eskimo curlew, and Steller’s sea cow. Hundreds of others, from grizzly bears to gray wolves to California condors, seemed on the point of vanishing too.

Fortunately, the 1960s and ‘70s saw an increase in awareness of and concern about environmental issues. Books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring helped highlight the risks of environmental pollution, while organizations like Greenpeace drew attention to the plight of charismatic species like whales. Over the span of less than two decades, millions of people realized our country’s rich natural heritage could soon vanish. In response, in 1966 Congress passed the Endangered Species Preservation Act, the first comprehensive law seeking to protect endangered species and their habitat.

A precursor to the modern Endangered Species Act, the Preservation Act instructed the U.S. Departments of Interior, Agriculture, and Defense to take certain steps to protect at-risk animals. However, a lack of specifics as to how the law should be enforced left many species vulnerable to continued decline. Furthermore, the 1966 law did not cover plants or many invertebrates, leaving vast swaths of the country’s biodiversity completely unprotected.

In 1973, Senator Harrison A. Williams introduced the modern Endangered Species Act, a stronger piece of legislation meant to replace the 1966 law. The ESA, as it came to be known, was passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate. Later that year, the House of Representatives voted 390-12 to approve its own version of the bill. The final Endangered Species Act was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on December 28th, 1973.

The Endangered Species Act made many changes to protect at-risk species. For one thing, the new law covered plants and all types of animals (including invertebrates). It also contained specific definitions of what constitutes a “threatened” or “endangered” species, increased prohibitions on killing and harming protected species, and banned federal authorization of projects that would destroy essential habitat of imperiled plants and animals. With these new protections in place species which were once on the brink of extinction began to slowly recover.

So how exactly does the law work? In order to receive protection from the Endangered Species Act a plant or animal must first be proposed for inclusion on the Endangered Species List, which designates which species are considered at risk of extinction. New listing proposals are reviewed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (for land-dwelling and freshwater species), or the National Marine Fisheries Service (for marine species).

Perhaps the biggest weakness of the Endangered Species Act is that reviewing a proposed listing can take several years–and in the meantime the species usually receives no protection. This means a plant or animal can literally go extinct while waiting to be protected. Still, once a species does make it onto the Endangered Species List it receives life-saving help. Federal agencies must come up with a recovery plan for the species and designate critical protected habitat it needs to survive. Killing, harming, or harassing members of the species becomes illegal. More than 1,600 animals and plants are currently included on the Endangered Species List.

Once a species has recovered to the point where it is no longer considered at risk, it can be “delisted,” or removed from the Endangered Species List. This is the final step in recovery, and means the species’ numbers have increased to the point where it no longer requires the ESA’s protection. The bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and American alligator are all examples of recovered species that have been delisted from the ESA.

Even for species that have not yet been delisted, the ESA has proven extremely effective in reducing their risk of extinction. Forty years after the ESA was passed, conservation groups found 99% of listed species had been prevented from going extinct. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, scientists believe at least 227 species would have vanished by now without the ESA’s protections.

So who could have a problem with such a successful, important environmental law? Unfortunately, large corporate interests have long had a goal of rolling back the Endangered Species Act, precisely because it has been successful at limiting logging, mining, and other activities in critical species habitat. Environmental groups and a concerned public have fought back most major attempts to weaken the law up to now. However, today, the Endangered Species Act may itself be in more danger than ever before.

Current threats to the Endangered Species Act have come from both the Trump administration and Congress. In July, the administration proposed making a series of changes to how the ESA is implemented. These would include reduced protections for plants and animals classified as “threatened” rather than “endangered” (endangered species are considered at near-term risk of extinction, while threatened species are at likely risk of becoming endangered). The changes would also reduce requirements that federal agencies consider long-term environmental impacts like climate change when assessing whether a species warrants protection.

Meanwhile, Republican members of Congress are pushing legislation that would weaken the Endangered Species Act. Some of these bills target specific species like the greater sage grouse and lesser prairie-chicken, which live on land sought after by the oil and gas industry. Certain members of Congress have proposed excluding these species from protection–a move that could prove deadly to their survival.

Thanks largely to the Endangered Species Act, animals like the bald eagle which were once poised on the threshold of extinction have now recovered and can be seen in the wild by thousands of people all across the U.S. However, without action from concerned wildlife lovers everywhere, countless other species could be deprived of the ESA’s life-saving protections in the future. You can stand up for the Endangered Species Act by calling or writing to your members of Congress and asking them to vote against any attacks on this important law. With enough voices speaking out for endangered species, the ESA can continue to protect hundreds of animals and plants for generations to come.

Photo credit: Andy Morffew

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