Nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee is a ribbon of fresh water called Abrams Creek. Hiding below the surface, under smooth river stones, lives a rare dwarf catfish called the Smoky madtom. This fish is not easy to find. It’s mostly nocturnal, lives in limited locales, and looks like any other catfish to the untrained eye. Despite these hurdles, finding a Smoky madtom today is far easier than it was half a century ago, when the fish verged on extinction.
“If that one madtom went extinct you probably wouldn’t know it, and there wouldn’t be a grand impact except you lost something cool,” says J.R. Shute, codirector of Conservation Fisheries, a Knoxville-based nonprofit that restores imperiled fish populations. “But extinction is an indication of a problem, and sooner or later that problem will catch up to us—whether it’s pollution, the quality of drinking water, or something else.”
In the case of the madtom, the problem was water quality; streams had been poisoned in hopes of making them ideal fisheries for trout. Fortunately, conservationists acted in time to prevent the catfish from vanishing from the planet. With the help of funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Shute and his colleagues were able to breed and restore a stable population in Abrams Creek. But as the madtom has been bolstering its ranks, the numbers for other animals as well as plants across the Southeast have become perilously low. Rapid development and poor agricultural practices already threaten these species’ welfare, and now the Trump administration is trying to gut the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the law meant to protect and restore them.
Over the past decade, two Florida butterflies, three freshwater mussels, the South Florida rainbow snake, the Florida fairy shrimp, and Kentucky’s Tatum Cave beetle have all been declared extinct. Currently still hanging on in fragmented longleaf pine forests are threatened gopher tortoises and endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. And five different plants in Georgia alone are on the Endangered Species List, including the large-flowered skullcap and small whorled pogonia.
There’s more. In fact, did you know that the southeastern United States has extinction numbers almost as high as in Hawaii, “the extinction capital of the world”? It’s true. Seven out of the ten states with the highest number of endangered species are located in the South. Just last year, a tiny snail in Georgia became the first animal to be declared extinct under the new presidency. Like Hawaii, the South has high levels of biodiversity in its many miles of streams and rivers, especially within ancient Appalachia. Think mussels, crayfish, amphibians, insects, and reptiles. Yet unlike Hawaii, most of the South’s struggling species aren’t protected yet—and because the Trump administration is making it harder for species to get listed, they’re unlikely to receive help anytime soon.
The damming of southern rivers alone has wiped out at least 50 species and imperiled hundreds of others, says Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. Water quality degradation caused by agricultural runoff and urban sprawl is especially concerning for aquatic wildlife such as freshwater mussels and mollusks. “Species are in as much trouble as they have ever been,” says Curry. “There needs to be more Clean Water Act enforcement, and yet the Clean Water Act is not enough protection for the species.”
That’s where the ESA comes in. Since its implementation in 1973, the ESA has saved more than 99 percent of its listed species. Bald eagles, beluga whales, and grizzly bears are a few of its better-known success stories, but there are hundreds more. The South, for instance, can thank the act for keeping its Florida manatee, fringeless orchid, and Ozark hellbender around. In short, the ESA works. It is one of the most effective conservation laws out there.
But now the Endangered Species Act is also endangered.
“The Trump administration is trying to do everything it can to weaken the ESA,” says Rebecca Riley, a senior attorney for NRDC who focuses on wildlife and endangered species. Among the proposals announced by the U.S. Department of the Interior last month is a provision that would put an end to providing threatened species with protections similar to those given to endangered species. Instead, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be required to review each protection on a case-by-case basis and a write a specific rule if deemed necessary.
“Basically, from now on all the species that are listed as threatened will get weaker protections,” says Riley. “And those protections may be so weak that they fail to save the species from extinction.” On the waiting list in the South are the threatened candy darter, the threatened trispot darter, and the threatened Panama City crayfish.
Another change would make it harder for plants and animals to get listed in the first place. As the rule currently stands, the sole basis for a threatened or endangered designation is science. The new proposal would remove the phrase “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination,” which could allow monetary concerns—the preferences of a developer or, say, the oil and gas industry—to influence whether a species deserves to exist.
“The administration says it’s about streamlining the ESA process, but actually they add significant burdens to the already burdened federal agencies that administer these laws,” says Riley, referring to the increased reviews of protections and the economic analyses that would be necessitated by the changes to the act.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. We are currently living in (and helping to perpetuate) the largest biodiversity die-off of since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago—what many biologists refer to as the Sixth Great Extinction. There are moral reasons for keeping the ESA strong, but also practical ones. For instance, bringing a species back from the brink of oblivion is far harder than preventing the further decline of a threatened species before the situation becomes dire. Look to the Smoky madtom for proof. It has taken three decades for biologists to nurse the madtom’s population back to health—to get it to a point where it can grow independent of human help. Further, for every plant or animal that vanishes, the potential rises that others in its ecosystem will follow suit. If we don’t do what we can to stem these losses, eventually there’ll be little left—in the South, and elsewhere.
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