Conservation Column: The Endangered Species Act Is Itself Endangered

The Endangered Species Act is one of America’s most effective and important environmental laws. Since its passage in 1973, the Act has enabled the recovery of several at-risk species including the Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, humpback whale, Virginia flying squirrel, and the Oregon chub, among others. The ESA was established with overwhelming bipartisan support during the Nixon administration and has consistently enjoyed the support of more than 80 percent of Americans ever since. Although less than 2 percent of listed species have actually been delisted, a more telling measure is that this law has prevented the extinction of almost all of the species that have been listed. This is a vital accomplishment, given that a recent U.N. report found that about a million species on the planet are facing extinction due to human activity, and that organisms of all kinds (from birds to insects, terrestrial organisms to marine life) are disappearing at a rate that is alarmingly higher than the average for the previous 10 million years.

Unfortunately, the current administration has recently announced plans that would undermine the effectiveness of the Act. Among the concerning changes are a reduction in protections for species that will be listed as “threatened,” one step down from the “endangered” category. One of the biggest criticisms of the ESA in the past has been that species must wait until they are in dire straits to be afforded protection. Studies in conservation biology have demonstrated time and time again that the deeper into the extinction vortex a species goes, the more difficult it is to recover it. Providing protection to threatened species was the best tactic to have a fighting chance of tangible recovery. The proposed change is counterproductive, to say the least. 

Other changes will allow economic assessments when considering whether a species should be listed, a policy contrary to the original and current practice of making scientifically based decisions. The way that critical habitat is calculated for endangered species will also be altered, threatening their recovery. Further, there will be a change in how the term “foreseeable future” will be defined, leading to uncertainty and a lack of consideration of the consequences of climate change. How can you help a species recover if you cannot establish protection of the habitat that they need to survive into the future?

Announcements of the administration’s modifications have been accompanied by the argument that these changes will remove burdens on people. This is fallacious as there have already been several amendments to the Act that protect small landowners and allow for all kinds of exemptions. The reality is that these changes align with other administration policies that allow for more oil and gas drilling, mining, and development in places where protected species live. We are in the midst of a public lands giveaway that will result in profit for a few at the expense of many. 

We humans are dependent on healthy functioning ecosystems in which organisms support other organisms in an amazingly complex web of life. Allowing this web to continue unraveling at such a rapid pace places us firmly among those species whose futures are endangered.