On the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, a threat looms

On the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, a threat looms

Imagine a cosmic rock billions of years old yet vibrant with water, light and life. Not too close to the sun and not too far away.

Tilted on its axis and turning daily to render seasons, sunrises and sunsets. A place so bountiful and varied that it has nourished and inspired humanity through our entire history.

This is Earth, our only home. And that stunning array of life – countless species evolved over millennia and evolving still – is what scientists today call biodiversity.

That biodiversity is in trouble.

First, some good news: 50 years ago this month, in 1973, the US Congress passed – and President Richard Nixon signed – something unprecedented: the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Written with biodiversity in mind, and to strengthen previous US conservation laws, the ESA empowered the federal government to get serious about protecting the United States’ most imperiled species of plants, mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects by making it illegal to “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect” them.

It further granted the government – and this is important – the authority to restore and defend habitats, home ranges and entire ecosystems critical to those species’ wellbeing.

This was monumental. A nation obsessed with individualism, economic growth and resource development had proclaimed that all forms of life had a right to exist – even flourish. This flourishing, we know from subsequent studies, not only reinvigorates the land but also revives the best in people, helping them to enjoy nature by discovering wonder and gratitude. The world is not here for us to grab and own; it’s here for us to caretake and share. This transcendence from ownership to stewardship was – and continues to be – many things, but mostly it’s a journey into ethical action for a planet in peril.

According to the US Department of the Interior, the ESA “has been credited with saving 99% of listed species from extinction thanks to the collaborative actions of federal agencies, state, local and Tribal governments, conservation organizations and private citizens”.

The whooping crane (the tallest bird in North America), down to 15 individuals in 1941, numbers close to 500 today. The peregrine falcon and bald eagle – the US national symbol – with their home ranges and vitality decimated by habitat destruction and degradation, and by shootings and pesticides, have made remarkable recoveries. The black-footed ferret, considered extinct until a few were discovered in Wyoming in 1981, has since rebounded to some 300 individuals, thanks to extensive habitat reclamation and captive breeding; while this sounds promising, wildlife biologists say that number needs to increase tenfold before the ferret can be considered no longer threatened by extinction.

Add to these marquee success stories the humpback whale, gray whale, California condor, Kirkland’s warbler, Mexican gray wolf, American alligator and others that would perhaps be gone forever were it not for the ESA. It takes tremendous effort – and at times real sacrifice (change in land-use practices, business models, etc) – to save a species that’s in rapid decline.

A whooping crane (Grus americana) in Florida. Photograph: blickwinkel/Alamy
A whooping crane (Grus americana) in Florida. Photograph: blickwinkel/Alamy

Which brings us to the bad news: “After helping prevent extinctions for 50 years,” the Associated Press announced this past August, “the Endangered Species Act itself may be in peril.” The AP wrote that “environmental advocates and scientists say [the ESA] is as essential as ever. Habitat loss, pollution, climate change and disease are putting an estimated 1m species worldwide at risk. Yet the law has become so controversial that Congress hasn’t updated it since 1992 – and some worry it won’t last another half-century.”

Why the controversy? Follow the money, in particular campaign donations to rightwing lawmakers from wealthy landowner associations and industry groups (logging, mining, oil, coal and gas) that oppose the ESA, which they say stifles economic growth and property rights.

If a right brings about the rapid decline of another species, it’s not a right. It’s a wrong. That’s the whole point of the ESA: to create a new moral imperative – be a brake on the big wheel that tramples biodiversity and will one day diminish all our futures if we don’t enforce (and improve) the act at every opportunity.

Back in July, when House Republicans held a hearing about what they called the “destructive cost” of the ESA, the representative Bruce Westerman, chair of the House committee on natural resources, added that the act had been so “twisted and morphed by radical litigants” that he would soon propose improvements. It was his way of saying he and his fellow Republicans would probably overrule science, delay new species listings, cut funding and starve the ESA.

What dangerous folly.

“Science is supposed to be the fundamental principle of managing endangered species,” said Mike Leahy, a senior director of the National Wildlife Federation. “It’s getting increasingly overruled by politics. This is every wildlife conservationist’s worst nightmare.”

To have any chance at survival, the ESA will need bipartisan support – not easy in these polarized times. When the act passed in 1973, the House vote was 390-12. How things have changed.

“Given the current political geography,” Ben Ehrenreich wrote in the New Republic, “it would be … whimsical to suppose that any American politician or movement could ride to power on the message that this planet does not belong to us, that we share it with the dead and the still-to-be-born and with species we have not bothered to notice, and that we must learn to live among them with generosity, humility and the sort of wisdom that does not come to human beings cheaply.”

Global biodiversity is now in serious decline, with extinction rates estimated to be at least 1,000 times higher than pre-human levels. According to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report, which studied a representative 32,000 populations, the numbers of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians have fallen nearly 70% in the past 50 years.

“We are the asteroid,” say T-shirts worn by increasing numbers of young Americans who know their history and science. The fifth and last great mass extinction occurred some 66m years ago when an asteroid slammed into Earth and doomed roughly three-fourths of all species to extinction. Today, it’s us. We have kicked off the sixth mass extinction, and every endangered species is a red warning light trying to wake us up.

Some 400 years ago, the young French scientist René Descartes had a dream (what he called a “meditation”) that led him to believe in a mind-body separation, that humans alone had souls. Animals did not, and as such, animals could feel neither pain nor anxiety. We alone were touched by God, and ruled over a mechanistic world.

This “Cartesian dualism” permeated western thought for centuries. It reduced nature to a commodity and further gave people permission to abuse plants and animals – with impunity. That mindset, coupled with the rise of agriculture and industry, accelerated the destruction of entire ecosystems, culminating in the largest wildlife slaughter in the history of the world: the killing of tens of millions of North American buffalo. This, tragically, is who we are.

How to turn it around? Start with parenting and education. Take kids outdoors where they can climb mountains, walk through forests and come home feeling taller than the trees, as Henry David Thoreau did. Tell them stories as Indigenous peoples did – and still do – about wild animals who have spirits and ancient trees who give wise counsel. Strive to live simply so others may simply live. Furthermore, have government incentivize the media, with its massive influence, to educate as well as entertain.

A humpback whale breaches the surface outside Hartley Bay along the Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, in 2013. Photograph: The Canadian Press/Alamy
A humpback whale breaches the surface outside Hartley Bay along the Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, in 2013. Photograph: The Canadian Press/Alamy

Why is it, we might ask, that the US has no high-profile champions of the larger-than-human world? No David Attenborough or Jane Goodall (they’re British) or David Suzuki (Canadian)? It’s time to change that by cultivating telegenic young American scientists, actors, athletes, musicians and humanists who already have a strong following. Get them on camera every week, knee-deep in a river talking about the patience of herons, the majesty of eagles, the beauty and value of nature everywhere here on our cosmic rock.

“Restoring biodiversity is the only way out of the crisis we have created,” says David Attenborough, “and that, in turn, means rewilding the world.”

Soon after taking office, Joe Biden signed an executive order to tackle the climate crisis, and to conserve 30% of US lands, waters and ocean areas by 2030. Noble objectives. The distinguished Harvard biologist EO Wilson went further, arguing that if humanity is to stand any chance of a healthy future, 50% of the world’s land surface must exist in a natural state.

What then are the benefits of wild nature and biodiversity? Clean air, carbon storage, water purification, food and drink, natural medicines, disease and pest control, nutrient cycling, soil fertility, pollination, habitats for wildlife, spiritual connections, sense of place, inspiration, recreation and physical and mental wellbeing – to name a few.

Should grizzly bears be reintroduced into the north Cascades, and wolves into Colorado? Yes. They were here long before us.

The American buffalo too were here for millennia, and are coming back. Reduced to only a few hundred, they now number some 350,000 and are free from the threat of extinction, which has taken many decades of devotion and hard work. The next big challenge will be to give them enough open space so they can stampede at will and once again be wild – buffalo, not feedlot cows.

“If human beings think they’re the best animal in the world,” the author and rancher Dan O’Brien says, “now’s our chance to prove it.”

We’ve come a long way from Descartes. We know now that other species have emotional intelligence, that wild animals mourn their dead and celebrate their young, that elephants call each other by names, that entire forests are composed of trees that communicate (through mycorrhizal networks). In his new book, Alfie and Me, Carl Safina, one of the United States’ best science and nature authors, adopts an injured owl and writes: “Our deeply shared history as living things is why we had the mutual capacity to recognize each other, and be brought into relationship by that strange binding called trust.” The healing, Safina discovered, goes both ways.

When Spanish conquistadors arrived in the “new world”, they were stunned to find hummingbirds, which didn’t exist in Europe. “Joyas voladoras”, they called them: flying jewels. It seemed that even the most brutal and destructive of men had a capacity for wonder.

Today, the fate of most every plant and animal on Earth is in our hands. The Endangered Species Act has never been more valuable. Wallace Stegner, the dean of western writers, once wrote: “We are the only species which, when it chooses to do so, will go to great lengths to save what it might destroy.”

Let this be our guiding principle for the next 50 years.

What you can do

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Focusing on Wildlife supports approved wildlife conservation organizations, which spend at least 80 percent of the money they raise on actual fieldwork, rather than administration and fundraising.

This article by Kim Heacox was first published by The Guardian on 5 December 2023. Lead Image: Bert, a male black-footed ferret, peers out from a cage at the US Fish and Wildlife Service on 11 April 2007. Photograph: Rick Wilking/Reuters.

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