The Endangered Species Act: 1973-2018

By Isabelle Bienen, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M. Jones, NWNL Director)

NWNL research intern Isabelle Bienen is a junior at Northwestern University studying Social Policy with minors in Environmental Policy & Culture and Legal Studies. Her  research on the Endangered Species Act focuses on a current topic of interest in the US.  Her 5-blog series on US Clean Water Act, its history and significance, will follow soon.

Defining the Endangered Species Act

The U.S. Endangered Species Act [hereafter, ESA] was passed by the U. S. Congress in 1973 due to growing concern over possible extinctions of native plants and animals within US watersheds.1 The previous year, President Nixon had asked the 93rd Congress to develop legislation to prevent species extinction in the United Status due to inadequate efforts up to that point. The resulting act is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service. The ESA’s defined purpose is to “protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend.”1 Thus the ESA plays an important stewardship role in US watersheds.

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Endangered Grey Wolf, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Since ESA protection includes safeguarding habitats of vulnerable species, the ESA governing agencies are assigned responsibility of targeted organisms by their habitat locations. The Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for terrestrial and freshwater organisms, and thus their watershed habitats. The National Marine Fisheries Service is responsible for marine life and habitat.6

Species of concern are labeled either “endangered” or “threatened” under the ESA. The term “endangered” indicates a species that “is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”The term “threatened” indicates a species that  “is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.”1 Congress ruled that all plant and animal species, other than pest insects, are eligible for listing by the ESA. . This includes subspecies, varieties and distinct population segments.1

The ESA, via the Environmental Protection Agency, annually provides approximately $1.4 billion of financial assistance to states with species of focus. These funds allow those states to develop local conservation programs. Their available powers, per the ESA, include relocating or  eliminating  ranching, logging, and oil drilling harmful to the species or their habitat.3 The ESA also allows the United States to meet its obligations to several international agreements and treaties, such as CITES [The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] and the Western Hemisphere Convention.2 These global agreements provide compelling support for upholding the ESA and its actions. Without the ESA, the United States would not uphold its international responsibilities.

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Critically-endangered Black Rhino, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Kenya

Achievements of the Endangered Species Act

The success of the ESA is clear, despite critics. The Center for Biological Diversity credits the ESA for preventing extinction of 99% of species on the ESA endangered and threatened lists.7 Going further it says that due to EPA actions from its founding in 1973 to 2013, the ESA has shown a “90% recovery rate in more than 100 species throughout the U.S.”7 Their 2012 study documenting 110 U.S. Northeast species, supported by the Environmental Protection Agency, revealed that 93% of those species are “stable or improving,” while about 80% are “meeting the recovery targets established in Federal recovery plans.”7 These statistics are all indicative of the ESA’s wide-spread success. The NRDC [National Resources Defence Council]  has hailed the ESA as a literal lifesaver for hundreds of species on the brink of extinction.

Additionally, the ESA has received strong public support. A national poll of Americans, administered by the Center for Biological Diversity in 2013, found that 2 out of 3 “want the Endangered Species Act strengthened or left along, but not weakened.”7 Recent polls in 2017 suggest that these numbers indicating ESA support have further increased.  Their results say that 9 out of 10 people support the ESA. It is clear that dismantling the Endangered Species Act – or even weakening it – would go directly against the will of well over half of Americans.

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Sharp-tailed grouse, similar to the endangered sage grouse, Nebraska

Recent Actions

As of July 2018, the Trump Administration initiated efforts to retract the Environmental Species Act. By mid-summer, more than two dozen pieces of legislation, policy initiatives and amendments designed to weaken the law have been proposed by the Trump Administration, and either introduced or voted on in Congress. These actions include:

  • a bill to strip protections from the gray wolf [Canis lupus] in Wyoming and along the western Great Lakes;
  • a plan to keep the sage grouse [Centrocercus urophasianus], a chicken-size bird that inhabits millions of oil-rich acres in the West, from being listed as endangered for the next decade;
  • a measure to remove the American burying beetle [Nicrophorus americanus] from the “endangered” list.  This orange-flecked insect has long been the bane of oil companies that would like to drill on the land where it lives.3
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Endangered Mountain Gorilla, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Uganda

The many steps taken against the ESA in only a few weeks this summer indicates the intensity of its drive to strip the ESA of its powers. The reasons stated for these actions is a concern that the impacts from ESA policies might restrict economic development and some American livelihoods. Some feel those economic impacts outweigh the significance of the ESA’s protection of endangered or threatened  species.3  

Foreseen Impacts and Reactions to Recent Actions

A July 19, 2018, proposal by the Interior and Commerce Departments would require that economic consequences of protecting any species must be considered when deciding assignment to the “endangered” or “threatened” species lists.3 If these actions are finalized, it would be extremely difficult for any new species to be added. However, species currently on these lists and their habitats will continue to be protected.3

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Recovered endangered Brown Pelican, Santa Barbara, California

The proposals, backed by the Trump Administration, have been requested by oil companies, gas companies and ranches.   They have objected to the ESA because they believe it “represents a costly incursion of federal regulations on their land and livelihoods.3 [See Addendum below. ] Despite decades of efforts by lobbyists and libertarians, efforts to overturn the ESA have not had any effect. Recent intensified and coordinated efforts may portend a more serious challenge to our watershed species that are integral to the health of our ecosystems.

Retracting the ESA would be detrimental to the overall web of plant and animal species populations in watersheds across the United States. Their loss would affect their associated habitats, predators and prey  – and ultimately impact human lives. The loss of the ESA would impair the safety and well-being of endangered and threatened species, the health of our watersheds, and the quality of human life.

Today’s reality is that the landmark law that established the ESA could be overturned. The eternal reality is that once a species becomes extinct, that couldn’t be overturned. Extinction is forever.

USA: Massachusetts, Cape Cod, Wianno, piping plover in breeding plumage
Recovered endangered Sand Piper, Cape Cod, Massachusettes

ADDENDUM from NWNL Director Alison M. Jones:  Adding to current concerns being voiced over recent threats to the EPA, today (8/14/2018) on national television, Christie Todd Whitman, former EPA Chair and N.J. Republican, added her voice.  She opined that, while occasional re-examination of regulations can be worthwhile, many current environmental roll-backs “are only being done for individual industries’ bottom line.”

SOURCES

  1. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, accessed 7/25/18, published 2017, IKB, link.
  2. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, accessed 7/25/18, published 2015, IKB, link.
  3. The New York Times, accessed 7/25/18, published 2018, IKB, link.
  4. CNN, accessed 7/25/18, published 2018, IKB, link
  5. National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, accessed 7/25/18, published 2018, IKB, link
  6. The United States Department of Justice, accessed 7/25/18, published 2015, IKB, link
  7. The Center for Biological Diversity, accessed 7/25/18, published 2017, IKB, link. 

 

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

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