"Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed."
President Richard Nixon, upon signing the Endangered Species Act in 1973
When the Endangered Species Act makes headlines, it’s usually because some new plant or animal has qualified for its protections. It’s usually bad news. It usually means the country has failed to safeguard a species in some way, and if we don’t do something soon, that plant or animal might cease to exist.
But for the ESA to have an association with failure is unfair, because there’s never been a more awesome law for wildlife. “The ESA is an extraordinarily successful law,” says Rebecca Riley, a senior attorney at NRDC specializing in endangered species. “The vast majority of species that get listed under it are still with us today. It’s incredibly rare for one of them to go extinct.”
Just ten species have blinked out while on the list, and eight of those may have actually been extinct at the time of their listing. Even with those eight outliers mucking up the data, the ESA is still batting damn near a thousand.
Importantly, this piece of legislation doesn’t just protect the bearers of all those fancy-sounding Latin names—it also protects their homes. By conserving habitat essential to a species’s existence, the law can save whole ecosystems.
Let’s get specific. Ever see a bald eagle, California condor, whooping crane, or peregrine falcon outside of a zoo? You probably wouldn’t have, if not for the act. The ESA appears to be particularly bomb for birds: According to a 2016 study, populations of 85 percent of listed birds have either stabilized or increased. But the law has also saved plants and animals you’ve likely never heard of. Gila trout. The Robbins’ cinquefoil. Key deer. Utah prairie dogs. Virginia big-eared bats. Pahrump poolfish. In fact, when a team of lawyers and environmental scientists set out in 2006 to quantify the ESA’s effectiveness after 30 years, they estimated that 227 species out of the 1,500 or so on the list would have been goners without the federal protections the act provides.
Here are five such cases that show the ESA in action, saving creatures that might no longer exist if it weren’t for a bunch of sentences on a piece of paper and the people who work tirelessly to bring those sentences to life.
Righting Old Wrongs
From 1938 to 1962, you couldn’t find an Aleutian Canada goose anywhere. It was as though something magical had happened—poof—and the once-abundant birds just disappeared.
Something did happen, but it was far from magical. Starting as early as 1750 and increasingly after 1915, the fur industry let Arctic and red foxes loose on 190 islands where the geese laid eggs and raised their young. This was a brilliant stroke for the fur traders, as foxes love to eat geese and geese were plentiful. All the fur traders had to do was collect their plump foxes later. Eventually, the introduced vulpines ate their way through the bulk of the Aleutian Canada goose population.
As it stood, putting the Aleutian Canada goose on some list would have done very little to save the species. For all intents and purposes, the geese were already gone. If anyone was ever again going to look up in awe as the birds went about their migration, recovering the Aleutian Canada goose would mean fixing a situation of our own creation.
In 1962, a remnant population of Aleutian Canada geese was discovered on Buldir Island. Buldir’s rocky coast, it seems, was too treacherous for the fur traders to land their boats. With a listing under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 and a starter population of just 790 geese from Buldir, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service embarked on an all-out campaign of goose recovery. This included an extensive fox-removal operation, a ban on hunting across the bird’s wintering habitat and migration route, the release of captive-bred geese, and the relocation of Buldir’s geese to other fox-free islands in the Aleutians.
As of 2001, more than 37,000 Aleutian Canada geese were honking across their range, having achieved an annual population growth rate of 14 percent. This was also the year that the birds flew off the Endangered Species List.
Fish Out of Water
Sometimes saving a species means saving where it lives and breathes. The species in this instance is the tidewater goby, a weird little fish that raises its young in sandy tunnels reinforced with its own mucus.
Unfortunately for the goby, most of the brackish waters it used to call home in California have been drained, dredged, paved over, or polluted going back to the days of the Gold Rush. “As much as 90 percent of its habitat has been lost,” says Riley.
Not only did development doom the gobies in those lagoons and estuaries, but it made it more difficult for nearby gobies to swim in and repopulate them. Thus, the fish’s habitat became increasingly fragmented.
NRDC worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get tidewater gobies on the list in 1994—and with that came the right to a critical habitat designation. “This protects the current habitat for the fish as well as habitat it could move to in the future,” Riley says, noting that the designation increased the goby’s protected habitat by 20 percent.
A 2005 study found that species given critical habitat designations for two years or more are twice as likely to start to rebound. Unfortunately, another study, from 2002, notes that only around 10 percent of listed species receive appropriate habitat protections. This is why Riley describes the designation for the tidewater goby as such “a huge win.”
Why the Endangered Bird Sings
If you live near the Great Lakes, you may know the Kirtland’s warbler as a yellow-bellied flash in the distance. And if you’ve been able to add one of these vibrant fliers to your bird-watching list, you have the ESA to thank.
Kirtland’s warblers are what you might call picky. They live only in stands of dense jack pine forest. They need eight acres of intact forest before they’ll make a nest, and it may take as many as 30 to 40 acres for the songbirds to successfully raise chicks.
Now you might think saving the Kirtland’s warbler is simply about saving trees. The more jack pines, the better, right?
Actually, no. It turns out the warblers nest only near the ground, and the lower branches of older jack pines fall off as the trees grow. This means the birds require a young jack pine forest, and if that isn’t a tall enough order, jack pine seeds won’t germinate unless they’ve been touched by the cleansing flame of a wildfire.
Scientists didn’t fully appreciate the warbler’s requirements until the late 1960s, when the bird’s numbers were already frightfully low. For decades we had been carving up jack pine habitat and suppressing fires without realizing the impact it was having on the tiny, yellow-breasted birds. Saving the species would mean a complete rethinking of how we managed our forests.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put the Kirtland’s warbler on its endangered species list in 1967. But it was a while yet before scientists were able to pinpoint and reverse the causes of the warbler’s decline. The population reached an all-time low in 1987 when one count recorded just 167 singing males.
But there was hope yet. Thanks to the protections afforded by the ESA—and some major improvements in forest-management practices (embracing prescribed burns, for one)—a count in 2012 yielded more than 2,000 singing, male Kirtland’s warblers.
Back from the Dead
The black-footed ferret has been toying with oblivion for some time. In fact, the species was declared extinct in 1979 when the last known ferret died in captivity.
Luckily, in 1981, a farmer in Meeteetse, Wyoming, caught his dog, Shep, fighting with a vicious little varmint. The dog won. The farmer had never seen the animal before, so he took its body to the local taxidermist, who confirmed its identity as an honest-to-goodness black-footed ferret. The man’s farm was apparently the last holdout for the species on earth. Go Meeteetse!
Scientists couldn’t just leave these last dozen or so ferrets with the task of repopulating the prairie. In fact, the ESA listing forbade them from doing so. Instead, intense study efforts were initiated at the Meeteetse site. So when disease struck, experts were already in a position to act. Wildlife managers caught the critters, whose black masks make them look like bandits, and started breeding them in captivity.
Today, black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced to 28 sites across their historic range, in accordance with a federal recovery plan drafted in 1988. And just last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made a big show about bringing the animals to one place in particular. That’s right: It’s been 35 years, but there are once again mustelids in Meeteetse!
Conservation Starts at Home
Here’s one last awesome thing about the ESA—it can even help save animals that don’t live in the United States.
The African elephant has been on the Endangered Species List since 1978, but it wasn’t until 1988 that a ban on importing ivory gave the listing some, er, tusks. And just this summer, the Obama administration made a commitment to strengthen the ban by restricting the trade of trophies, antiques, and several other forms of loophole ivory.
The African elephant is still very much in peril, so we don’t want to go crowing its recovery just yet. And it goes without saying that a U.S. law can't do much to catch poachers on other continents, but we can go after the traffickers and traders that come into our country. In a land with one of the largest ivory markets, doing everything we can to cut demand here can save animals a world away.