Protecting the Act That Protects our Beloved Wildlife – The Endangered Species Act

In a results-oriented world, where decisions are often made based upon the success or failure of an act or action, what speaks better of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) than successes of the act itself.  Imagine a world today without the American Bald Eagle, American Alligator, Whooping Crane, Peregrine Falcon, American Gray Wolf, Grizzly Bear, or California Condor.  And yet without the ESA, these iconic animals would almost certainly no longer be around today.  And while that fact alone should put an exclamation point on the success of the ESA and eliminate any further efforts to dismantle or weaken the act, how embarrassing would it be to live in a country that had an extinct species as its national bird, solely  because we could not even bring ourselves to put forth an effort to protect the bald eagle.  However, if not for the ESA, that likely would have happened.

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A bald eagle, which the Endangered Species Act is credited with reviving, in Alaska. Critics of the act say that it has become a tool that limits people’s livelihoods.CreditCreditBob Strong/Reuters

Equally important, other species still on the endangered species list that almost certainly would no longer exist include the Florida Panther, West Indian Manatee, Polar Bear, Wood Bison, Jaguar, Jaguarundi, Ocelot, Northern and Southern Sea Otters, Prairie Dogs, Pronghorn, Bighorn Sheep, Stellar Sea Lions, and a variety of species of Whale.  As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  The mere fact that the ESA has been this successful in preventing the complete eradication and extinction of such beloved and iconic animals suggests that we should not be talking about weakening of the act.  If anything, we should be discussing how to strengthen it even further.

Unfortunately, while the Endangered Species Act was overwhelmingly passed in 1973 by a bipartisan Congress, it has not been without its detractors who have desired to weaken or even dismantle the act.  However, the threat to this historic act has never been greater than it is today.   And unfortunately, those critics of the ESA have also misled the public, to suggest that the act has failed; when in fact, the exact opposite is true…with 93% of all animals on the list either recovered or on track for recovery.  And given that the overwhelmingly majority of the American public remain in support of this act, it is vitally important that our congressional representatives hear our voices. The American public also needs to understand that those desiring to dismantle the act pursue their efforts for personal gain and selfish motive, contrary to the best interests of our country; and of course, the animals that we are trying to protect.

The battle for animal protections often has been shouldered by animal activists and by organizations that are often mis-characterized by those with opposing agendas as “extremists”; as if living life with a compassionate and caring for all living beings is somehow wrong. Unfortunately, if someone dares take a position that appears contrary to human consumption of the planet, they are painted with that broad brush of extremism.  They are criticized because they don’t have that same view of economic exploitation; that profit maximization should stand head and shoulders above all else, and life is some type of zero-sum game.  And they are criticized because they have a reverence toward all living things, and a belief that as humans, we have a responsibility to protect the environment, and to leave the world a better place for future generations.

To me, that sounds like a pretty good thing.  But as the owner of a small business and of someone with a generally favorable view of capitalism, I probably do not fit the category of typical animal or environmental activist.  However, I count myself as one of those who speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, and I strongly disagree with the view that if someone can make a dollar, and it is not specifically illegal to do so, they should be allowed to pursue profit.  Ethics and morals seem to be in short supply these days, and to pursue capitalistic goals without considering the ethical or moral impact of those goals is a very narrow minded, selfish view of life.

Marianne Jennings, Professor of Legal and Ethical Studies with Arizona State University refers to choices people make under a “Could I – Should I” mentality…with “Could I” reflecting the legal aspect of the decision and “Should I” representing the ethical or moral aspect of the decision.  Unfortunately, decisions are often made based solely on “Could I”, with no consideration as to how that decision may harm or detrimentally impact others.  The attack on the Endangered Species Act is just that; an effort to dismantle or weaken, without consideration of doing what is right ethically or morally, or of doing what is in the best interest of all impacted parties: humans and animals.

While I maintain a strong view that animals deserve protections, and that all creatures have a right to co-exist on this earth, animal activism is not limited to protections of animals, but also to preserve these beautiful creatures for the enjoyment by future generations.  Why should future generations be precluded from having the same opportunities that I had as a child then and as an adult today? Or even better, why shouldn’t future generations have even a better opportunity to experience wildlife and nature than I have?  We should all strive to leave this world a better place but unfortunately, because we have often sacrificed our ethics and morals for a quick dollar pursuing capitalistic interests without any concern for the short-term and long-term impact of our actions, we are quickly leaving the world worse for future generations, not better.

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In 1966 and 1969, Congress passed earlier versions of legislation designed to protect those animals that were on the precipice of extinction, but it wasn’t until the historical legislation that President Nixon signed in December 1973 that Congress and our President decided that the protection of animals, plants and other species was a worthy and noble cause; and that without immediate action, many of these species would disappear, never to be seen again.

Think about this in terms of today’s partisanship politics.  Senator Harrison A. Williams (D – NJ) introduced the Senate Version of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and was unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate on July 24, 1973.  The House of Representatives approved their version of the bill on September 18, 1973 by a margin of 390 – 12.  A conference committee then reconciled the two bills and President Nixon signed this act on December 19, 1973.  The ESA was clearly recognized as a bipartisan necessity by both parties and by the vast majority of Americans as an important and necessary act to ensure the preservation of species and vital to ensure that future generations had the same opportunity to coexist with these beloved creatures.  And equally important, or even more so, the protections of these animals was and is necessary to preserve the delicate balance of the ecosystem; and that when a species is removed from the ecosystem, the damage is felt both felt both upstream and downstream throughout the chain.

Of course, that act was introduced 45 years, enacted by the 93rd Congress and signed by the 37th President, and the ESA faces a current 115th Congress and a 45th President that apparently (1) do not appreciate the importance of this act and that loss of any animal species due to events other than natural selection will have a detrimental, long-lasting and perhaps permanent impact on our ecosystem, (2) have little concern that the American people may one day no longer see these beautiful creatures in the wild; or (3) have allowed the influence of money from certain organizations and industries to cloud their ethical vision and are now willing to push back against legislation that was and still is overwhelmingly supported by the American public.

Further, the 115th Congress is comprised of individuals such as U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah who “would love to invalidate” the law because it has been “misused for control of the land”.  He has commented that the ESA “…has never been used for the rehabilitation of species. It’s been used for control of the land,” Bishop said this year. “We’ve missed the entire purpose of the Endangered Species Act. It has been hijacked.”  No.  The true hijacking of the act is by people such as Mr. Bishop who desires to dismantle the act on behalf of industry interests in his state, and contrary to the desires of his constituents.

According to a study by Mother News Network, from 1996 – 2010, Congress averaged 5 bills per year designed to weaken and strip the ESA of some of its protections. In 2011, when Republicans took control of the House, there were 30 introduced bills, an average of 40 bills introduced per year through 2016, and at least 75 bills introduced in Congress since January 2017 to weaken, dismantle or effectively make the ESA useless in terms of animal protections.

And certain members of Congress clearly have a disdain for the ESA. However, that view is not representative of their constituents.  So, if these Congressional members are not representing the best interest of their constituents, then exactly who are they representing?

The New York Times reported that in December 2017, David Bernhardt, Deputy Interior Secretary convened a meeting at the Interior Department between senior political appointees and career staffers, at which he laid out his plans to streamline the law.  At the same time, on Capitol Hill, the Congressional Western Caucus, a group of House lawmakers, began coordinating a strategy. On July 12, the lawmakers unveiled a package of nine bills that, if enacted, would see more permanent changes to the law than those pushed by Mr. Bernhardt’s proposal. Legislation that is passed by Congress and signed into law by the president is less easily undone than regulatory changes.”

It is no secret that the Western states have long had a disdain for what they view as federal reach and oversight of western lands, and to be fair, the federal government does own a lot of land.  Congressional Research Services’ Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data, published a March 3, 2017 indicates the federal government owns 640 million acres of land, or approximately 28% of the 2.27 billion acres of land in the United States.  However, this is heavily weighted in the western states, where the federal government owns 61.3% of Alaskan land, and 46.4% of land in the other 11 western states.  This compares to only 4.2% in non-western states.

So, it is no secret that much of the effort to dismantle, destroy, or at the very least, weaken the ESA also comes from legislators in the western states.  And it is no secret that David Bernhardt is a former oil lobbyist and lawyer who counted Independent Petroleum Association of America as one of his clients.  And it is no secret that a significant portion of western industry interests include oil and gas extraction, ranching and mining.  So, it’s not overly difficult to identify those behind this effort, and given that the current administration has a disdain for any legislation, law or protection that would dare prevent someone from eking out an extra dollar, these groups and political representatives view 2018 at the year to truly inflict permanent damage on an act that is supported by the majority of the U.S. citizens.

Critics of the ESA have argued that this legislation should be reformed (or repealed) because public support for animal protections has faded over time, and therefore, supports this push to dismantle.  So, to determine the accuracy of this statement, a team of ecologists and social scientists from “Conservation Letters” gathered data from several sources, including a national survey they conducted in 2014, as well as other published studies and polls spanning two decades since the mid-1990s.

By combining data from all this research, the study’s authors found that “support for the Act has been remarkably stable over the past 20 years. As noted in the table below, more than four out of five Americans support the ESA, the data show, while only about one in 10 oppose it. The most recent studies were conducted in 2015, 2014 and 2011, yet their results are “statistically indistinguishable” from those of the earliest study, which dates back to 1996.

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And while this should come across as no surprise that certain Congressional representatives are pursuing a legislative agenda benefiting well-financed mining, ranching and oil / gas extraction industries and individuals, rather than representing the best interests of the majority of their constituents, acknowledging, and accepting are two different things.  In fact if anything, these polls indicate not only  overwhelming support of the ESA by the majority of Americans, but that opposition against has actually decreased from 1996 and 2015.

So, why should we continue to support the ESA and what is the purpose of the ESA?  The Endangered Species Act was passed to (1) prevent the extinction of vulnerable species throughout the United States; and (2) to recover a species’ population to the point where listing the species as endangered or threatened is no longer necessary.

Unfortunately, critics of the ESA and those with ulterior motives conveniently ignore its primary purpose; that is, to prevent extinction.  Rather, they present misleading and misinterpreted statistics to argue its failure.  Mark Twain referred to these as “lies, damned lies and statistics” and this is certainly an example of that.  Legislators such as U.S. Representative Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) in an August 23, 2013 interview with Wyoming Radio attempted to mislead the public with a comment of “we have a law where only 1 percent of the species that have been listed have actually been delisted. To me, that indicates a law that is failing in its goal which is to list species, recover them, and then delist them.”

That 1% was based upon the US Fish and Wildlife Services reference that of the 2,105 species on the endangered species list at that time, 28 animals had been deemed as recovered and subsequently delisted. This equates to 1.3%.  Unfortunately, statistics are often misleading and manipulated to push certain false narratives.  As William Robert Irvin, President and CEO of American Rivers stated “By the time species are listed as threatened or endangered, their numbers are so low that preventing extinction is the major challenge, with recovery and delisting a remote consideration. The law acts as an emergency room. Recovery requires much longer treatment through actions under the full panoply of conservation laws and programs.”

The fact of the matter is that while the ESA has exhibited an overwhelming success rate more than 90%.  In celebration of Endangered Species Day 2012 (which also marked the 40-year anniversary of the ESA), the Center for Biological Diversity studied in detail the actual success of the ESA and published a report entitled On Time, On Target: How the Endangered Species Act Is Saving America’s Wildlife; and it offers a contrast to those detractors suggesting the ESA has failed.

Their study focused on the actual recovery rate of 110 different species, which represented a range over all 50 states, included all major taxonomic groups and a diversity of listing lengths.  Of these species, they determined that 90 percent of the species were recovering at the rate specified by their federal recovery plan.  They also determined that it takes an average of 25 years for a species to fully recover and that 80% of the species have not even been listed long enough to warrant an expectation of recovery.  Their analysis also concluded that the average age of listing was 32 years while recovery plans require approximately 46 years of listing.

Those detractors and those presenting the false narrative would have the reader believe that an animal placed on the endangered species list should be fully recovered the following day.  This is no different from someone announcing that they are going on a diet, and then expressing shock and surprise that they are still carrying that additional 50 pounds on their body the following day.  That 50 pounds was not gained overnight but was representative of years of poor eating habits and poor choices.  Unfortunately, many of the animals on the endangered species list are also on that list because of poor choices we have made as humans, including over-hunting, over-development, eradication of animals viewed as pests, and the decimation of habitat and food sources.

The Endangered Species Act currently provides protections to animals that are endangered or “threatened”.  The current attack on the ESA would include the removal “endangered” protections to those animals that were only viewed as “threatened”.  However, the reason threatened animals receive the same protections as those endangered is to enhance recovery and to protect them before their numbers plummet to a level that would make recovery unlikely or much more difficult.

Think of a “threatened” species as a patient on blood pressure medication.  The doctor could wait until after a heart attack or stroke and then if the patient survives, prescribe high blood pressure medication. Or the doctor could opt for a more proactive, preventative approach and prescribe medication as a preventative, hoping to help the patient before a life-ending or life altering heart attack.  The ESA serves as that “medication” for those animals deemed as threatened and enables a greater chance of survival and recovery; and certainly, it makes more sense than simply waiting for the inevitable reclassification from threatened to endangered.  And proactive measures are almost always less expensive than reactionary measures, which essentially is what is required once endangered.

Of course, the “medication” provides little benefit if the patient doesn’t alter his or her lifestyle: losing weight, eating better, or addressing other contributing factors that caused the high blood pressure in the first place.   So, while the ESA is the initial medication to stave off extinction, further steps are then required to stabilize the species before recovery can even be considered.  Take the Florida Panther for example.  Most studies estimate a population of 160 to 200 Florida Panthers residing south of the Coosawatchie River and primarily in the Southwest corner of the state.  There are those who would have the reader believe that Florida Panthers should no longer be protected because (1) the 160 to 200 estimate grossly underestimates total panthers in existence (There are a number of experts who actually suggest that even the 160 to 200 is a gross exaggeration and there may be fewer than 100; (2) saving the Florida Panther from extinction if a futile exercise so we might as well give up; and (3) the Florida panther is a subspecies of the North American Mountain Lion who is not endangered (not yet, although they remain at risk) and therefore, shouldn’t receive special treatment.

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However, the reality is that those in favor of removing the Florida Panther from the endangered species list have ulterior and hidden agendas and are not speaking from an independent, science supported observation.   This includes hunters who selfishly desire a trophy, ranchers who complain about livestock depredation (even though the federal government provides for compensation relief from lost livestock), or developers who desire to develop the few remaining parts of Florida not already developed but are unable to develop in those areas deemed as Florida panther habitat.

In addition to removing protections of those animals who are only “threatened”, the most damaging component of the legislation is a requirement that economic impact would have to be factored before an animal could be added to the list.  Essentially, this would require financial justification of species protection, that the protection must somehow generate a greater profit than other land uses such as mining, gas exploration, ranching, etc.  And of course, we all know this would be a herculean task to overcome.  So, the reader needs to understand that the true impact of this measure will effectively be a final dismantling of the endangered species act. Those animals currently on the endangered species would be grandfathered in, but all future animals, birds, plants, etc. could not be added unless it could be proven that protecting the species would create a greater economic impact than these alternative land uses.  And those attacking the ESA know that.

How do you measure the economic benefit that a Florida Panther or Yellowstone Grizzly contributes?  Perhaps one could argue that the possibility of seeing a Grizzly increases tourism and tourism revenue to Yellowstone National Park.  However, the Grizzly is likely to be an exception.  The Florida Panther is an elusive big cat, rarely seen and certainly, it would be difficult to argue the Florida Panther generates revenue to support its existence.  But compare that to a developer desiring to develop on Panther habitat.  The developer can easily provide an “economic loss” scenario that would justify development over protection of the species.

Additionally, the economic argument is completely contrary to the original purpose of the act and economics should not be a basis of consideration.  When President Nixon signed the ESA into legislation, he noted that “nothing is more priceless and more-worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed. It is a many-faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists, and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans.”

In other words, you can’t monetize this act, and the protection of animals gravitates beyond the realm of value.  The protection of these species is truly priceless; which therefore, exceeds any economic benefit that might be derived through alternative land uses that would contribute to the extinction of species that deserve protection.

It’s a sad moment in American history that we find ourselves, where the desires of the few have a greater influence than the desires of the many; when profit alone becomes the determinant of decision making, and when the long-term impact of such changes is simply ignored.  The efforts to weaken, dismantle and destroy the ESA is not steeped in any scientific theory, and is presented in a manner to mislead and misrepresent the public as to the success of this act.  Unfortunately, as is the case most of the time, one only needs to follow the money trail to understand the true intent and reason that certain people wish to repeal the act in its entirety, or at least weaken it to the point where it no longer provides protections to animals.

The Endangered Species Act is one of the greatest legislature achievements passed by our legislature because it was passed not for monetary benefits of special interest, but it was passed because it was simply the right thing to do.  It was an act introduced by a Democratic legislator and signed by a Republic President and received almost 100% unanimous support by Congress.  There is a reason it received this type of support and that is because the American Public wanted it passed then, and the American Public remains as supportive, if not more, today.  The Endangered Species Act deserves preservation in its current state, and those species protected by the act deserve continued protections that eventually aid in recovery.  Otherwise, these species will disappear off the face of the earth forever, never to be enjoyed by current or future generations.

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