By George Fenwick
Forty years ago, the most important wildlife protection measure in U.S. history was signed into law by President Richard Nixon, who marked the occasion by issuing the following statement: “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.”
That’s the point of view that helped give rise to the Endangered Species Act. The long list of species it has helped save from extinction includes birds such as the peregrine falcon, wood stork, Kirtland’s warbler, California condor and nēnē (Hawaiian goose). Other well-known beneficiaries of the Endangered Species Act include the Louisiana black bear and black-footed ferret.
The need for the act is proven by the fact that in the United States and its coastal waters, scientific studies have resulted in the addition of nearly 1,500 plants and animals to the federal list of threatened or endangered species. That should come as no surprise, given the global extinction crisis.
The Endangered Species Act protects plants and animals on the list by protecting their natural habitats. Sometimes, but not always, that process puts limits on proposals to develop certain portions of the landscape. It’s also a process that has helped prevent the extinction of 99 percent of the plants and animals the act has been used to protect, including irreplaceable but less charismatic species, such as the Okaloosa darter, the Maguire daisy and the Lake Erie water snake.
In other words, when this law is allowed to work as it was designed, it is remarkably effective. Unfortunately, the Endangered Species Act has been undercut for years by high-profile critics. Some of them blame the act (falsely) for larger economic problems. Some would gladly sacrifice rare species and their habitats in order to boost short-term profits.
Allies of these critics in the U.S. Congress have repeatedly slashed funding for the Endangered Species Act’s listing and enforcement process, which has been admirably carried out by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries services.
Under the Obama administration, problems linked to funding cuts have been
compounded by a series of controversial proposals for ESA listings. For various reasons, those proposals fail to protect species in desperate need of conservation measures, such as the lesser prairie chicken, streaked horned lark, western yellow-billed cuckoo, a distinct bi-state population of the greater sage grouse, and northern spotted owl.
In Congress, bills that would destroy the Endangered Species Act’s effectiveness have been unveiled repeatedly in recent years. The latest example is the Endangered Species Management Self-Determination Act, which was recently re-introduced in both the House (H.R. 3533) and Senate (S. 31731). This bill would require governors and Congress to sign off on all new endangered species listings, and it would allow governors to take over management of species that reside solely inside their states’ borders.
On top of that, the Self-Determination Act would automatically remove protected plants and animals from the Endangered Species List after five years. The bill has little chance of passing this Congress and effectively turns biological and ecological decision-making into politically motivated decision-making.
Changes such as these could undo much of the good work that has been done since 1973. If that happens, we will lose the wildlife that Richard Nixon called “a many-faceted treasure, of value to scientists, scholars and nature lovers alike … a vital part of the heritage we share as Americans.”
-- George Fenwick is president of the American Bird Conservancy (Abcbirds.org), a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit membership organization whose mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas.