From Unity To Discord: 50 Years Of The Endangered Species Act

The Endangered Species Act, one of the most comprehensive environmental laws globally, was designed to protect the nation’s plants and animals at risk of extinction.

From Unity To Discord: 50 Years Of The Endangered Species Act

Exactly fifty years ago, Congress achieved what would be considered nearly unimaginable in today’s polarized political climate: passing a powerful environmental law with almost unanimous support. In 1973, the House voted overwhelmingly, 390 to 12, in favor of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Republican President Richard Nixon, upon signing the act into law, emphasized the importance of preserving the rich array of animal life with which the country has been blessed.

The Endangered Species Act, one of the most comprehensive environmental laws globally, was designed to protect the nation’s plants and animals at risk of extinction. It criminalizes harming species deemed endangered, with certain exceptions, and mandates that government agencies make efforts to avoid jeopardizing endangered species or their habitats.

As the ESA enters its fifth decade, its track record in preventing extinctions and promoting species recovery is under scrutiny, especially considering the profound environmental changes anticipated in the coming years.

The Core of the ESA: Protecting Species on the Brink

At the heart of the ESA is a list maintained by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), classifying species as endangered or threatened based on their risk of extinction. Currently, around 1,670 species are on this list, with three-quarters classified as endangered. The law makes it illegal to harm, kill, or capture these species, collectively referred to as “take.”

While the ESA has undoubtedly played a crucial role in preventing extinctions, with only about 2% of listed species going extinct since 1973, there are both successes and challenges to consider.

Success Stories and Species Recovery

The ESA’s success stories include the recovery of species like the American alligator, peregrine falcon, three subspecies of Channel Island foxes, and the golden paintbrush plant. More than 60 species have been removed from the endangered species list as a result of successful recovery efforts.

One notable example is the black-footed ferret, which was on the brink of extinction in 1980. A chance discovery in Meeteetse, Wyoming, led to the identification of an unknown population, forming the basis for a successful captive breeding program supported by the ESA. Thousands of ferrets have since been reintroduced into the wild.

Challenges and Criticisms

Despite its successes, the ESA faces criticism and challenges. Critics, including some lawmakers, point to the relatively small number of delisted species as evidence of the law’s inefficiency. However, defenders argue that recovery, especially for species teetering on the brink of extinction, is a complex and lengthy process.

One major challenge is the ESA’s limited scope, protecting only a fraction of the species facing extinction. Over 5,300 plant and animal species in the US are at a “high risk” of extinction, according to NatureServe, yet only around 1,670 are protected under the ESA.

Delays in Decision-Making and Funding Shortages

Another issue is the lengthy process for determining protection status. The FWS, responsible for administering the ESA, faces a backlog of species awaiting consideration for protection. Decisions that should take two years on average often extend to 12 years due to funding and staff shortages.

The FWS acknowledges the resource shortage but has not requested additional funding from Congress to address the issue. Environmental groups argue that the FWS needs more funding to fulfill its responsibilities effectively.

Calls for Reform and a Proactive Approach

Critics and advocates alike recognize the need for reform, but they differ in their approaches. Critics argue that the ESA’s reactive nature, intervening only when species are on the brink of extinction, is limiting. Environmental advocates, on the other hand, emphasize the importance of funding and prioritization.

Efforts like the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA) seek a more proactive approach by allocating funds to restore species before they become endangered. However, funding challenges and debates over budget allocations have hindered the progress of such initiatives.

Conclusion: Aiming for a Balanced Future

As the Endangered Species Act marks its 50th anniversary, it stands as a crucial piece of legislation that has undoubtedly prevented extinctions and facilitated the recovery of numerous species. However, the challenges it faces, from funding shortages to delays in decision-making, highlight the need for a balanced and proactive approach to conservation.

The ongoing debate over the ESA’s effectiveness underscores the importance of continued efforts to protect biodiversity, acknowledging the complex interplay between conservation, economic considerations, and public priorities. As environmental changes loom on the horizon, finding common ground and securing sufficient resources will be essential for the ESA to fulfill its mission in the decades to come.