Forty years ago, on Dec. 28, 1973, 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 need for the ESA is proven by the fact that in the U. S. and its coastal waters, scientific studies have resulted in nearly 1,500 plants and animals being added to the federal list of threatened or endangered species. That should come as no surprise given the global extinction crisis.
The ESA protects these plants and animals by protecting their natural habitats. Sometimes, but not always, that is a process that puts limits on proposals to develop certain portions of those landscapes. It’s also a process that has helped prevent the extinction of 99 percent of the plants and animals it has been used to protect, including irreplaceable but less charismatic species ranging from the Okaloosa darter to the Lake Erie water snake.
Unfortunately, the ESA has been undercut for years by high-profile critics. Some of these critics falsely blame the ESA 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 Congress have repeatedly slashed funding for the ESA listing and enforcement process, which has been admirably carried out by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service.
Under the Obama administration, problems linked to funding cuts have been compounded by a series of controversial ESA listing proposals. For various reasons, those proposals fail to protect species in desperate need of conservation measures.
In Congress, bills that would destroy the ESA’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). It 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, this bill 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 done since 1973.
George Fenwick, president, American Bird Conservancy, Washington, D.C.