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Happy 50th, Endangered Species. And Many More?

Fifty years ago, the first species gained official federal protection as endangered. Those protections are now in danger.
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California condors fly near Grand Canyon National Park.

California condors fly near Grand Canyon National Park.

Fifty years ago, the first species to gain federal protection as endangered were listed in the Federal Register. Now, despite much progress in the decades since, they may be in more trouble than ever before.

At a Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing in mid-February, Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) said that fewer than 3 percent of species have sufficiently recovered since the Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973. He used this as grounds for his argument to “modernize” the law. Two weeks later, Barrasso, who worked as a doctor before entering politics, penned an op-ed in the Casper Star-Tribune, writing that though 1,652 species in the United States have been listed as either endangered or threatened since the law’s enactment, only 47 have, in fact, been removed from the list due to recovery. “If I treat 100 patients and just three recover enough to be discharged from the hospital, I would deserve to lose my license,” he wrote.

Barrasso’s analogy both fails to recognize the difference between preventing a species from extinction and removing it from the ESA’s list, and ignores the fact that conservation is not medicine. Species recovery, in other words, takes time and resources. As Jamie Rappaport Clark, CEO of Defenders of Wildlife and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under President Bill Clinton, said at the Senate hearing: “The biggest problem that the Endangered Species Act faces is not a need for modernization — it is a need for funding.”

It would be like judging a doctor who has been forced to treat her patients without a stethoscope on hand.

On March 11th, 1967, six months after the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 was passed, the first species to gain official protection as endangered were published in the Federal Register, six years prior to the ESA. (The ESPA didn’t catalog specific species but set the way for the list that came out a few months later in 1967.) This group of 78 included many icons — the grizzly bear, the California condor, the whooping crane, and the bald eagle among them (the latter of which was removed from the endangered species list in 2007) — and many lesser-known species like the Apache trout.

These species helped pave passage for the milestone ESA, which not only devoted federal resources for species recovery but also introduced the now ubiquitous phrase “endangered species” into the modern lexicon, heightening the collective conscience. Of the “Class of 1967,” as it is endearingly known by many wildlife biologists, only four (the Caribbean monk seal, the dusky seaside sparrow, the longjaw cisco, and the blue pike) have been declared extinct. Most have seen remarkable recovery progress, thanks to the protections and resources afforded them by the ESA.

“Rather than focusing on legislative changes to the ESA, Congress should be focusing its efforts on supporting wildlife solutions that are flexible, efficient, and cooperative.”

But recovery efforts for threatened and endangered species are likely to meet their most formidable challenges yet with an administration that appears hostile to environmental concerns and bent on shredding federal regulations to advance “the deconstruction of the administrative state.”

To date, the current administration has issued a number of directives that don’t bode well for conservation:

  • It announced its intention of reducing the Environmental Protection Agency’s $8.2 billion budget by 25 percent, cutting the agency’s staff by 20 percent, and shrinking grant allocations to states by 30 percent.
  • As part of its plan to downsize the EPA’s budget, the administration announced its intention of cutting funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative from $300 million annually to about $10 million, a 97 percent reduction. The program has been instrumental in restoring wetlands sand to improve water quality throughout the Upper Midwest.
  • Other EPA cuts would shrink funding for restoration work in the Puget Sound and the Chesapeake Bay, as well as environmental education programs for children.
  • As Kate Wheeling recently reported for Pacific Standard, the administration also instructed the EPA last month to repeal the “2015 Waters of the United States rule,” which requires agricultural and industrial operations to obtain permission from the federal government before using certain fertilizers near waterways. This order, in particular, has outraged both environmental advocates and sportsman groups. Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, called President Donald Trump’s order “a big step back” in a blog post. “When the new Administration replaces the Clean Water Rule, it must listen to the voices of tens of millions of sportsmen and women who want clean water, more fish and wildlife habitat, and more hunting and angling opportunities.”
  • One of the first actions taken by the new secretary of the interior was to issue the repeal of a ban on the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle in national parks and wildlife refuges. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, as many as 20 million birds and other animals die of lead poisoning each year as a result of the lead that hunters, fishers, and other sportsmen use. The Peregrine Fund considers lead poisoning from ammo to be a major reason why California condors remain on the endangered species list.

And, of course, the president has also reversed orders that halted development of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, much to the consternation of indigenous rights and environmental advocates. And, as a piece in the New York Times details, the administration is expected to try repealing regulations on vehicle pollution that will relax restrictions on tailpipe emissions, and on carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. The Washington Post also reported that the administration wants to cut the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by 17 percent, killing research funding and satellite programs as well as eliminating funding for “external research, coastal management, estuary reserves and ‘coastal resilience,’ which seeks to bolster the ability of coastal areas to withstand major storms and rising seas.”

Even the grandiose plans for a $22 billion border wall project have serious implications for endangered wildlife, potentially inhibiting movement and genetic diversification of species including endangered ocelot, as a Defenders of Wildlife blog post explains.

“Already, the existing border fence has resulted in significant habitat fragmentation, causing distress for mountain lions and bobcats, and inhibiting movement for low-flying birds such as the pygmy owl and land-loving roadrunners,” says Eric Holst, associate vice president of working lands for the Environmental Defense Fund, a leading international environmental non-profit organization.

Holst is not surprised the administration also has the ESA in its crosshairs. After all, the law, which ushered in a new era of formal — if often contentious — natural resources management, has long been disparaged by legislators, industries, and landowners who see it as a barrier to business interests that puts wildlife before people.

“Now … Republicans see an opportunity to advance broad changes to a law they contend has been exploited by wildlife advocates to block economic development,” wrote Matthew Brown and Matthew Daly in a story for the Associated Press in January. Brown and Daly’s story quoted House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) as saying that the ESA “…has never been used for the rehabilitation of species. It’s been used for control of the land,” and that he “’would love to invalidate’ the law and would need other lawmakers’ cooperation.”

Indeed, “the Act is itself endangered,” Holst says. “We’ve seen a preview of ideas to come with the last Congress, including efforts to remove protections under the Act, remove species from the list, prevent new listings, limit the type of science used in the listing process, transfer more authority to states, and even inhibit the voice of citizens concerned about wildlife, the overwhelming majority — 90 percent of voters — of whom support the law.”

Recalling Barrasso’s doctor analogy, Holst says the law “operates more like an emergency room, rather than preventive care. By the time a species is listed, it’s already reached crisis stage and the necessary fixes are often costly and burdensome, often resulting in drawn-out legal battles that delay recovery.”

That’s why EDF is promoting market-based incentives by which landowners and developers are compensated for “growing habitat” for threatened and endangered species. Holst points to the greater sage grouse as the subject of an exemplar cooperative conservation effort involving ranchers and oil companies that thwarted a seemingly imminent endangered species listing.

“Rather than focusing on legislative changes to the ESA, Congress should be focusing its efforts on supporting wildlife solutions that are flexible, efficient, and cooperative,” Holst says. “Congress should also provide the Fish and Wildlife Service with sufficient resources to complete timely reviews, ensure science-based decisions, foster effective conservation partnerships, and expedite the path to recovery.”

Of course, complicating all matters related to species conservation is the daunting specter of global warming, a fact that seems to carry little urgency for the administration. (The EPA director recently issued remarks contradicting long-established facts about greenhouse gas emissions — and language from his own agency’s website.)

While most of us are now familiar with the plight of polar bears, a more nuanced illustration of climate change-associated conservation challenges is presented by the Kirtland’s warbler, one of the most dramatic successes to emerge out of the “Class of ’67.”

A migratory songbird that winters in the Bahamas and spends the spring and summer primarily in Michigan’s northeastern Lower Peninsula, the Kirtland’s warbler depends on breeding habitat that consists of large stands of dense, young jack pine growing on glacial outwash sands. But, with human population expansion into Northern Michigan in the early 1900s and the subsequent advent of large-scale fire suppression, which inhibited the ecosystem’s natural regeneration, warbler habitat became severely limited.

Additionally, agricultural and logging expansion into Michigan brought with it brown-headed cowbirds, “nest parasites” that lay eggs in the nests of host birds who then go on to raise the cowbird chicks as their own.

This phenomenon, in conjunction with the decimation of its habitat, nearly rendered the warbler extinct. A 1961 census of all singing males revealed only 502 birds; in 1971, a survey found only 201 singing males, with a range that had been reduced to just a few townships in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula.

Fortunately, thanks to its 1967 listing and the protections of the ESA that soon followed, the bird became the focus of major recovery efforts, which included both intensive forest habitat regeneration and brown-headed cowbird control. Today, the Kirtland’s warbler population has reached record levels, having rebounded from a low of 167 males in 1987. The 2015 census counted 2,365 singing males, far surpassing the official recovery plan goal of 1,000 pairs. Also, the bird’s range has expanded into the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, and Ontario, and that nest parasitism has been effectively eliminated. Once on the brink of extinction, the warbler may soon be reclassified from endangered to threatened status.

In the Bahamas, however, rising sea levels caused by global warming could lead to increased development of upland interior areas that would encroach on vital wintering habitat, and that changing precipitation pattern may alter fruit production, which is crucial for the fitness of birds returning to their breeding grounds. And much of the breeding ground is predicted to receive less rainfall and be subjected to increased temperatures, which could adversely affect the young jack pine forests that are sensitive to heat and drought conditions. Furthermore, timing patterns of food availability and insect emergence may lead to increased stresses on the bird during critical nesting and migration periods.

Such circumstances illustrate not only the increasingly complex challenges associated with species conservation, but also the special urgency these efforts signify.

In 1966, the year before the first species gained official federal protection as endangered, a report by James Black and the National Academies of Science detailed the correspondence of carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere with the rate of its production by human consumption of fossil fuels. Black went on to work for Exxon, warning company executives in 1977 of the dangers associated with atmospheric carbon dioxide increases from fossil fuel burning.

Reconciling the dual narratives of endangered species recovery efforts and global warming will likely become increasingly difficult, especially if oil and gas interests continue financing relentless assaults on the ESA. Currently, more than 250 species await listing decisions under the ESA; if the law remains intact enough to provide a lifeline for imperiled species, that number will most certainly increase as a result of human activity and climate change.

Also at the mid-February Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing was Dan Ashe, the most recent FWS director. Ashe called the ESA “the world’s gold standard,” and went on to say that the Act “has helped us to achieve miracles. It is not perfect, and we can make it better. But as this Congress considers its future, your goal should be to make it stronger, faster, and better for the 21st century because life literally depends on it.”