The Trump administration and a Republican-held Congress appear poised to unravel the nation’s bedrock environmental laws and programs, including the Endangered Species Act (ESA).The ESA is one of our most effective environmental laws, proven to be vital to protecting species such as the iconic grizzly bear.
The passage of the Endangered Species Act represented a pendulum swing away from an ethos of domination characterizing the “frontier mentality,” to one of respect and reverence for nature. After witnessing the widespread eradication of species such as buffalo, wolves, grizzlies – not to mention the genocide of native peoples – many concluded that our society had gone overboard. This helped build a powerful constituency for “saving all the pieces” of our native ecosystems, to quote ecologist and author Aldo Leopold.
The explicit aim of the ESA is to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems they rely on. Importantly, the Act seeks to curb the excesses of state wildlife managers and the masters they serve, who contributed to endangering numerous species in the first place. Moreover, the ESA requires that the management of species be based solely on the best available science, not the conveniences of bureaucrats and politicians.
Over 1600 species have been listed under the ESA by US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as either endangered or threatened. “Endangered” means a species is in imminent danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. “Threatened” means a species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.
The ESA contains several provisions that have been critical to its success. Under Section 7 of the Act, the FWS adopted a “look before you leap” approach to ensure that projects involving federal lands and resources do not further imperil protected species. Section 9 furthermore requires that the government avoid “taking” listed species, which refers to actions that include not only direct killing, but also harassment and habitat loss. Recognizing that states are important to recovery, Section 6 establishes a program that funds state-related recovery activities.
The ESA also includes an important provision allowing citizens to sue those who are likely breaking the law, which means any person or organization can file a lawsuit to stop any party, including a governmental agency, that is in violation of the Act. This provision has enabled conservationists to play a critical role in enforcing the ESA, which government agencies are often lax in enforcing.
Two unsubstantiated myths have been promulgated about the ESA. Foremost is the entrenched “species vs people” story. This story has its roots in some early controversies, the first of which involved a small endangered fish called the snail darter. Not long after, controversy arose surrounding the black footed ferret, which served as my entree to ESA issues while still a graduate student.
Ferrets were thought to have been extirpated in the wild, but in the early 1980s, a dead ferret was found by some ranchers near Meeteetse, Wyoming. Ferrets rely on prairie dogs for food, and so need large expanses of prairie, which here meant private ranches and adjacent public land.
Even though local oil and gas and ranching industries were not adversely affected by efforts to recover the ferret, organizations representing these interests seized on the opportunity to frame the “story” as being about ferrets versus local economies – by all indications fabricated out of ideological and political agendas rather than any concrete reality (sound familiar?).
But the press readily latched onto the endangered species vs people formula because it fit into a simplifying dramatic narrative.
Next enter state wildlife managers and their political masters to add a second mythical story that has, unfortunately, also become widespread. The nub of this narrative is that states, not the federal government, should lead recovery efforts because they are closer to the ground. Yet all too often state politicians and managers were largely responsible for creating the conditions that led to species needing ESA protections. Nonetheless, after enough repetitions, both stories became part of an overarching mythology surrounding the ESA.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘The
Endangered Species Act: a Critical Safety
Net Now Threatened by Congress and Trump’.