From Moose to Monarchs, Wildlife in the Heartland Needs the Endangered Species Act

This conservation law has been saving our flora and fauna since the 1970s. The Trump administration should stop fiddling with it.

Kirtland’s warbler in Stubb's Park, Ohio

The Indiana bats, piping plovers, northwestern moose, lynx, burying beetles, monarch butterflies, and many other imperiled species living in Great Lake states got some bad news this summer. The Trump administration wants to weaken the federal protections that have helped keep them from slipping into extinction, leaving them vulnerable to the threats that put them into such precarious positions in the first place. The changes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), proposed in July, would not only make it harder for species to get on the Endangered Species List but also give them fewer safeguards once they got there.

While the ramifications would be nationwide, they would deeply affect the country’s heartland, where the ESA has already helped bring the black-footed ferret, bald eagle, and Kirtland’s warbler back from the brink. Though not all of those species are completely out of danger, their populations are making progress. It can take years, if not decades, to just identify what’s causing a species to struggle—and years more to address it.

Take the Kirtland’s warbler. This yellow-bellied songbird found in Michigan breeds only in young jackpine stands, something researchers didn’t know until a huge fire engulfed large tracts of mature forest in the late 1980s. When young saplings shot up and created habitat for the birds, the bird’s numbers shot up, too. And a diverse group of ornithologists and state and federal officials were there to help keep the rebound going, thanks in part to protections granted by the ESA. This tiny bird that might otherwise have been written off for good may one day be able to fly off the list.

“This is a great example of how things should work,” says Scott Hicks, a supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) field office in East Lansing, Michigan, who works on boosting the warbler’s numbers. Without the efforts of many groups, the bird would not be in recovery right now, he says. Or perhaps not here at all.

In fact, the ESA has staved off the extinction of 99 percent of the roughly 2,000 species it has protected since the law’s implementation in 1973. But in recent decades, the ESA has come under attack from legislators who claim it is an impediment to development and industry. Even though research—like a 2015 study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—shows that listing a species rarely prevents development, legislators try to hack away at the law anyway.

This past summer, congressional representatives introduced no fewer than nine bills (as well as riders to legislation that Congress must pass) to weaken the act, some proposing to delist species like the gray wolf or the American burying beetle. The beetle is a lightning rod for legislators like Oklahoma representative Markwayne Mullin who say protecting the species prevents oil and gas development in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Nebraska—three of the four states where this red and black beetle still survives in the wild. (Once prevalent in 35 states, these insects now exist only on islands off Rhode Island and in midwestern fields.) Burying beetle researcher Louis Perrotti told Scientific American that without these carcass-burying beetles, we’d be knee deep in bodies.

American burying beetle
Credit: Kitkeane/Flickr

Claiming that taking protective measures for the species costs too much and slows projects down, the oil and gas industry wants the beetle delisted—which highlights why one of the changes to the ESA put forth by the Trump administration is so concerning. Currently, FWS can consider only scientific evidence when deciding whether to list, downgrade, or delist a species. Under the proposed rules, the agency would still consider only scientific evidence, but it could reference or publish the predicted economic effects of a listing.

Critics say this change could give industry the opportunity to influence a potential listing by pointing to negative impacts on its bottom line. This would essentially skew what the ESA is supposed to be all about: protecting species, preventing extinction, and making sure that when we develop, we do it in smart ways, says Rebecca Riley, a Chicago-based senior attorney at NRDC.

Also, these sorts of economic analyses tend to focus on what’s lost, not what’s gained. Quantifying the benefits of listing a species is difficult to do, in part because there aren’t many conservation economists out there. “I have yet to see a decision where the benefits put a heavy thumb on the scale for listing,” says Jake Li, director of biodiversity at the nonprofit Environmental Policy Innovation Center. (The Trump administration used this tactic of altering the costs and benefits of an action before, when it made a case for removing protections for national monuments.)

This pivot could spell trouble for a number of species in the Midwest, including the monarch butterfly. The FWS is scheduled to decide by next summer whether to designate monarchs—whose populations have plummeted by 90 percent over the past two decades due to habitat destruction and pesticides—as “threatened.” If the agricultural industry argues that the butterfly’s new status would hurt profits, a listing could prove contentious.

Monarch butterflies
Credit: Steve Corey

Even if the butterfly does receive threatened status, few protections may be headed its way. If the changes to the ESA move forward, newly listed threatened species aren’t likely to get the same protections as those classified as endangered. For example, someone might be able to kill one or two or ten threatened animals without incurring a fine. Though the FWS can change that on a case-by-case basis, that single protection probably saved some species from extinction, says Frank Davis, head of the University of California, Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.

A 2016 analysis of the Endangered Species Act over the past 40 years conducted by Davis and his colleagues showed that an area stretching from southern Illinois into Kentucky and all the way down to Arkansas is a hot spot for listed species, such as the pallid sturgeon and least tern. The reason why so many species struggle here is typical: the habitat destruction caused by mining and other activities. The researchers also found that there are at least 10 times more species out there in need of listings than currently have them, and their report calls for more protections, not fewer.

The public has an opportunity to weigh in on the Trump’s administration’s proposed changes until September 24, when the comment period closes. Thinking we can wait for species to teeter on the edge of oblivion before stepping in to help them is not only irresponsible, it’s inefficient. Let’s just say a little yellow bird told me that.

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