In 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) passed to public acclaim and broad bipartisan support in Congress, and became one of the strongest legal tools in the world for protecting species and their habitats. Its purpose is to prevent threatened and declining species from going extinct. It is not a perfect law, and could be profitably revised in the face of current scientific knowledge, but overall, it works well. 99.5% of species that have ever been listed under the ESA are still with us, and some, like the Bald Eagle, have made dramatic recoveries.
What is the ESA and how does it work?
Currently the ESA lists approximately 2,270 species, 650 of which are foreign species which do not occur in the US. Under the ESA, a species is considered “endangered” if it is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range, and “threatened” if it may become endangered in the foreseeable future.
There are two provisions in the ESA which give it its “teeth”—the citizen-suit provision (which allows individuals and environmental groups to petition or sue the federal government to ensure the Act protects species as intended), and the critical habitat provision (which ensures that animals aren’t just protected on paper, but that listing includes strict protection of the habitat those species need to survive and eventually recover). It is also crucially important that the act does not take into account the economic costs of saving imperiled species when deciding whether they are endangered or not, or make judgments about whether or not a species is "worth" saving.
A series of reports from the Center for Biological Diversity--including On Time, On Target and A Wild Success: American Voices on the Endangered Species Act at 40--are good places to start learning about the ESA and what it has accomplished from a conservation perspective.
How do Americans feel about it?
A poll conducted in the summer of 2015 found that nine out of ten Americans (that’s 90% of us!) support the Endangered Species Act, and that 71 percent of us believe that the biologists of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—not elected officials—should make decisions about which species should be protected under the ESA. Seven in ten voters said they were more likely to support the election of candidates who backed our landmark environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the ESA. Most notably, support for the ESA is high across people of diverse ages, social classes, and genders. This is not a highly partisan issue for most Americans: the law is favored by overwhelming majorities of self-identified liberals (96 percent), moderates (94 percent), and conservatives (82 percent).
Economists have found that annual “willingness to pay” (WTP) to protect individual species from extinction ranges from $5-$100 per species for most US households. WTP studies are well known to represent overestimates of what people actually want to spend, but we aren’t currently spending anything close to that—in fact, hundreds of listed species have annual conservation budgets under the ESA of less than $5,000/year. It seems the American people value species conservation far more than their government does.
Why is the ESA under extra threat now?
Presently, support for the ESA is very low among Republican lawmakers, and many describe it as killing jobs and development (though in the survey discussed above, 66% of Americans believed we do not have to choose between conserving our natural heritage and growing our economy). Many Republicans also point to the fact that only 2 percent of species listed under the ESA have come back off the list to argue that the law doesn’t work (though this isn’t really supported by scientific evidence; studies show more than half of listed species have populations that are stable or improving, and that percentage rises the longer a species has been listed).
Of course, they’re also somewhat misrepresenting the purpose of the law, which is to prevent species from going extinct (and then, eventually, to help them recover). It does that pretty well. It isn’t surprising, though, that species in dire trouble may not bounce back from hundreds of years of habitat loss or unsustainable exploitation quickly. Most species rebuilding plans assume it will take many decades for species to recover, and, biologically speaking, that’s just common sense.
With ESA-skeptical Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and the Presidency, the ESA is at serious risk. Utah Representative Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, has said he intends to lead a push to repeal the Endangered Species Act entirely (among other worrisome environmental plans, like giveaways of protected federal lands).
The previous Congress was also pretty hostile to the ESA, with many introductions of amendments and riders that would undercut the Act’s power. For instance, Republican Senator Dean Heller of Nevada introduced a bill he called the Common Sense in Species Protection Act of 2015 which would have blocked habitat protections if it were believed that the economic benefits of a development project were greater than the economic benefits of wildlife protection. Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, introduced The Endangered Species Management Self-Determination Act, which would functionally gut the ESA, automatically delisting species after 5 years and allowing states to block listing of species occurring within the state. It would also let state governors take over regulating endangered species that occurred only in their state, banning federal protections for those species. Under this bill, more than half of all listed species could lose their federal protections. Congressional attacks on the ESA have increased 600 percent in the last five years compared to the previous 15. People don't imagine this landmark American legislation could disappear, but it's becoming increasingly possible.
If gutting the ESA seems as worrisome to you as it does to us, you can find contact information for your Senators or Representatives at these links. Please call and let them know that you support the Endangered Species Act, the National Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the protection of federal lands. You may also want to mention that someone who denies or is ignorant of the science related to pollution and climate change, and has consistently acted on behalf of the oil and gas industry, might not be the right person to head the EPA.
Lots of environmental organizations are working to protect the ESA, and if you're looking for somewhere to give, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Center for Biological Diversity have both been very active in using the legal system to protect endangered and threatened wildlife.
2017 is a year that may shape the environmental future of the United States for decades to come. The Endangered Species Act isn’t a perfect law, but it has helped prevent an estimated 227 extinctions of American species since its passage, and the vast majority of Americans want it to continue to do so. We’re going to have to make sure that our government understands how we feel, and we hope we can count on your help.
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