The Endangered Species Act
According to the National Research Council:
The Endangered Species Act has saved hundreds of species from extinction, including the bald eagle, grizzly bear, gray wolf and wild stocks of Pacific and Atlantic salmon.
98 percent of the species protected by the law have survived.
Nearly 40 percent of species protected for at least 6 years are stable or improving; the longer a species is protected by the act, the more likely it is to be on the road to recovery.
The law has also helped to preserve millions of acres of forests, beaches, wetlands and wild places that serve as critical habitat for these species.
Protecting Noah's Law
The Endangered Species Act preserves America's natural heritage.
In 1803, when President Thomas Jefferson sent forth explorers Lewis and Clark on an odyssey through the uncharted West, he instructed them to "observe the animals of the country generally and especially ... any which may be deemed rare or extinct." That they did.
The journals of the Corps of Discovery -- which include detailed, seminal observations of bison, wolves, caribou, grizzly bears and many other icons of the American wilds -- powerfully convey a sense of a rich, varied landscape, replete with an astonishing array of native plants and animals. Ever since, a notion that beyond the edges of our towns and cities lies a vast realm of natural wonders has been bound into our national identity.
Two centuries after Lewis and Clark's epic journey, many of the plants and animals they encountered are in danger of disappearing from the American landscape forever. Many decades of neglect, mismanagement and outright abuse of our natural resources -- our forests and prairies; lakes, rivers and coastlines; and living things from bison to salmon to giant sequoias -- have reduced the range and populations of thousands of species to tiny fractions of their pre-colonial levels.
Hundreds of species face extinction if they are not nurtured back to healthy, stable populations. And some -- such as the West Indian monk seal, Carolina parakeet, and passenger pigeon (incredibly, once the most numerous bird on Earth) -- are gone forever.
It's long past time to protect what's ours, what belongs to our children and all future generations -- we must master the art of caring for and coexisting with all the gifts that nature has bestowed on us. In the United States, the three-decade-old Endangered Species Act is the best tool we have for this work.
It can be made better and stronger. But it would be tragically shortsighted to gut the law and trade protection of wildlife for protection of the profits of commercial developers and industrial polluters.
Birth of a Cornerstone of Environmental Law
The bald eagle, the national symbol of the United States, was abundant throughout the country as the Founding Fathers did their work. But hunting and habitat loss sent eagle populations into steady decline. Bald eagle numbers then crashed nearly beyond hope due to extensive use of the toxic pesticide DDT -- chronicled in Rachel Carson's Silent Spring -- and habitat destruction.
Concern for the bald eagle and other vanishing native species sparked the public outcry that led Congress to pass the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1966. A second law, passed in 1969, broadened the scope of the first, but while these laws were the first to list animals as endangered, they took little concrete action to protect them. The Endangered Species Act, the last of the core federal environmental laws to come out of the environmental movement of 1960s and 1970s, combined and strengthened these earlier laws.
Letter of the Law
The Endangered Species Act allows the federal government to "list" animal populations and plant species as either "endangered" or "threatened." Once a species is listed, it is illegal to "harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect" it without a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The law also prohibits federal agencies from taking any action that would jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species or result in damage to its designated "critical habitat," the geographic areas that contain features essential for the species' recovery.
Finally, the Endangered Species Act requires the federal government to prepare a recovery plan for each listed species that sets out a strategy for meeting population targets and eventually allows the government to safely remove the species from the list.
Polls show that the American people overwhelmingly support the Endangered Species Act and the strong enforcement of laws to protect wildlife. Yet in recent years, developers and their political allies have tried to weaken the ESA. These efforts include Congress handing the Defense Department an exemption from the critical habitat provisions of the Endangered Species Act; lawsuits brought by industry groups seeking to invalidate almost every critical habitat designation; and regulations that would weaken the enforcement of the act.
Among other things, the Bush administration has tried to weaken the Environmental Protection Agency's duty to comply with the Endangered Species Act when approving the use of pesticides and other toxic chemicals, and similarly, moved to ease the Forest Service's obligation to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service before approving commercial logging projects. They've also made it easier to import endangered trophy animals -- such as cheetahs -- into the United States.
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Illustration: "Distant Thunder" print of passenger pigeons © Owen Gromme/Milwaukee National Bank.
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