America’s species-protection law works just fine, so leave it alone

By Michael Saul

One of the most basic scientific facts of evolution is this: It has taken thousands, even millions of years for animals like gray wolves and humpback whales to evolve into the species they are today — species Americans cherish and want preserved for future generations.

That’s why calls to rewrite — or worse, repeal — the Endangered Species Act ring so hollow.

The Endangered Species Act is widely accepted as one of the nation’s most successful environmental laws. It protects animals driven to the brink of extinction, often by human activities, and the habitat critical to their survival.

To date, the act has saved more than 99 percent of the animals that have received its protections while putting hundreds more on the road to recovery. Most species that have been listed as endangered are bouncing back at the expected recovery rate set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In Colorado, animals like the whooping crane, black-footed ferret and greenback cutthroat trout would likely never have been seen again if not for federal protections from the act.

Those population gains took time. Just like it took time for those animals to evolve, it takes time for them to recover to the point where they are no longer in danger of being lost. When they are lost, they are lost forever, making a few decades of protection for recovery all the more reasonable. Expecting populations to recover any faster than they declined is illogical at best, especially as species face a changing climate and habitat continues to be lost to development.

Claims from critics that species sit on the endangered list indefinitely are plain false.  When the Endangered Species Act is allowed to work without political interference, it provides both an emergency check on the permanence of extinction, and tools for the difficult work of creating the necessary conditions for populations to recover.

Moreover, expecting populations to recover without protections for the habitats they need to survive is a recipe for failure. Setting recovery goals is meaningless unless there’s a way to ensure lasting conservation of the lands or waters that endangered plants and animals need to survive.

The truth is, populations of animals such as bald eagles and peregrine falcons — America’s natural heritage — have not only recovered thanks to the act, but species continue to be delisted. During President Barack Obama’s administration, more animals and plants were recovered and delisted than during all other presidencies combined since the act’s creation in 1973. Those include amazing species like the black-capped vireo and lesser long-nosed bat.

Some private industry and congressional leaders are working to dismantle the primary law that protects America’s wild treasures. In Congress, both the House and Senate committees on natural resources are led by politicians working to discredit the Endangered Species Act under the guise of wanting to improve it.

Other opponents of wildlife claim too much money has been invested in saving endangered species. In reality, 1 out of 4 species receives just $10,000 annually on average, a dismal amount compared to how much is actually needed for significant population recovery.

It is clear that leaders from extractive private industries and politicians want to destroy environmental laws for profit. But through their unwavering support for the Endangered Species Act, everyday Americans have shown time and again they value wildlife and public lands. They will not stand on the sidelines as corporations and politicians empty landscapes of the very wildlife that keep them healthy. 

Michael Saul is senior attorney in the Center for Biological Diversity’s public lands program. 


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