The Endangered Species Act: Protector of Nature

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Introduction

America has lasted for thousands of years, and the native species remained untouched except for use by the native peoples. However, once colonists arrived, they started to affect and damage the indigenous species and have been for the last 400 years. In the early 1970s, a realization occurred that would change America’s relationship with the environment forever.

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In 1973, the United States’ solution was to issue the Endangered Species Act in order to save the various native species going extinct and that were characterized to have esthetic, ecological, educational, recreational, and scientific value to our Nation and its people (Endangered Species Act Regulations, 2018). Although there are debates on the Endangered Species Act’s protections concerning land and resources, its successes have been shown in saving hundreds of species and habitats from extinction and recover.

History and Background

Even before the obsession of protecting the environment in the United States, there were several occasions where species protection was given special attention (Endangered Species Act Timeline, n.d.). Beginning in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt created the first National Wildlife Refuge in Pelican Island, Florida (Endangered Species Act Timeline, n.d.). The wildlife protected included brown pelicans, wood storks, and other threatened water birds. National Wildlife Refuges continue on today and currently protect over 300 threatened and endangered species (Endangered Species Act Timeline, n.d.). The United States also went international in their protections in 1918 when they created a treaty with Great Britain in support of Canada (Endangered Species Act Timeline, n.d.). This treaty established a system of protections for birds that migrated between the United States and Canada (Endangered Species Act Timeline, n.d.). The treaty was enforced through the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 (Endangered Species Act Timeline, n.d.). Although some wildlife protection occurred before 1960, the real breakthroughs occurred after, especially in the 1960s-1970s.

The ESA was one of many environmental protection statutes passed in the 1960s and 1970s, including the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, Wilderness Act of 1964, Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, Clean Water Act of 1970, and the Wilderness Act of 1964 (Baur & Irvin, 2010). However, the ESA was the most disputed and strict law of them with the purpose of protecting species from extinction and even ushering them into recovery (Baur & Irvin, 2010). The Act was also the strictest environmental protection law in the world (The Endangered Species Act: A Wild Success, n.d.). The ESA was passed following the 1973 conference where 80 countries signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Washington, D.C. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, n.d.). CITES put restrictions on international trade that put wildlife species in danger (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, n.d.).

There were also previous laws that laid the groundwork for the Endangered Species Act. In 1966, Congress passed the Endangered Species Preservation Act, but it only gave limited protection for endangered native animal species (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2011). This law obligated the Department of Agriculture, Department of the Interior, and Department of Defense to protect the species listed under the Act’s protection, and their habitats (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2011). It also gave the United States Fish and Wildlife Service the authority to obtain land and habitat for the listed species. Three years later in 1969, Congress amended the Endangered Species Preservation Act to have it also protect species in danger of worldwide extinction (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2011). These additional protections outlawed the import and sale of the endangered animals (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2011).

Contents of the Endangered Species Act

At the time of its enactment on December 28, 1973 under President Richard Nixon, there were sixteen sections all giving a deep explanation into the protection of endangered and threatened species, as well as their habitats. The United States government realized that because of increased economic expansion, many native species went extinct or were on the brink of extinction since there were no proper steps previously taken towards conservation (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sec 2). Section 3 of the Endangered Species Act from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service report gives relevant definitions from the law. Some necessary explanations include endangered species which means any species that is in danger of becoming extinct in most or all of its population; and threatened species which refers to any species in danger of becoming endangered in the near future (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sec 3). An important area of the ESA is section 4 where guidelines for being a listed and delisted species for the law. Listing a species pertains to the classification as threatened or endangered (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sec 4). In order to become listed, a species must apply to one piece of the following criteria: current or predicted destruction of a habitat; predation or disease; not enough current precautions for regulation; exploitation scientifically, educationally, commercially, or recreationally; or other causes of threatened survival whether naturally or by humans (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sec 4). For a species, being listed means that they are protected by potentially dangerous federal actions and have regulations on the sale, trade, and transport of them (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sec 4). The federal government is given the ability to carry out recovery plans, buy threatened habitats, and give support to conservation agencies (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sec 4). There are currently over 1,200 listed species (Westbrook, 2006). An example of a listed species is the tan riffleshell, a freshwater mussel, listed as endangered in 1977 (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sec 4).

Candidate species are plants and animals that can become listed to gain protection from the Act, and can currently get protected, just not legally (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sec 4). However, early conservation can lower costs for future recovery and maintains preservation options (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sec 4). Also. if candidate species receive anticipated aid for recovery, higher priority species can get the protection needed (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sec 4). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service defines candidate species as wildlife that have enough information on them and their status with hopes that they will become threatened or endangered, but there are more at risk species that gain priority on the list (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services, Sec 4). There are currently 286 candidate species to be listed (Westbrook, 2011). One case of a candidate species is the Goodding’s onion found in Arizona (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sec 4).

The main objective of the ESA is delisting. Delisting is when species are taken off of the endangered or threatened species list, possibly due to finding of new populations of the species, extinction, effective recovery attempts. Downlisting is moving down from being classified as endangered to threatened, this is usually due to recovery of the species. In order to qualify for downlisting or delisting, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service checks its current status related to recovery and population, current threats, and consultations from experts inside and outside the Service (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sec 4). A total of 37 species have been delisted including 13 that have recovered and 9 that have gone extinct (but 6 of them went extinct before listing) (Westbrook, 2011). After delisting, the species must be observed for five years to assure that it can survive without the aid of the ESA. One real life example of a delisted species is the American peregrine falcon which was delisted in 1999 due to recovery (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sec 4). The main focus of conservation in the law is for wildlife and habitats to recover and remain protected and thrive.

New Amendments Added and Current Propositions

The Endangered Species Act is an extensive and firm statute on conservation, however it has been added to in the past. The major amendments added to the ESA were in 1978, 1982, 1988, and 2004 which extended the Act without changing its actual framework (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2011). The 1978 addition in section 4 entailed that the threatened habitats must be jointly listed when listing a species (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2011). The revision in section 3 also said that only species of vertebrates could apply to populations when determining protection, not plants, subspecies, and invertebrates (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2011). One final change was in section 5 and stated that the Department of Agriculture was required to join the Departments of Defense and Interior to in conservation of biodiversity (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2011). The amendment from 1982 further added to section 4 in that the status of species needed to be judged based on trade and biological information, rather than economic or outside effects of the species (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2011). The 1988 amendment had several extensions. Section 4 now required candidate and recovered species to be observed; the ESA also had a more detailed explanation of recovery plans (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2011). Section 9 was changed to increase protection of endangered plants (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2011). This amendment also added a whole new eighteenth section that discussed finances and the requirement of a financial report (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2011). In 2004, the newly implemented National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004 excused the Department of Defense from certain critical habitat regulations as long as there was a natural management plan in place and has permission from the Department of the Interior (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2011). Although many of the amendments were added in the latter twentieth century, proposed changes are still occurring today.

In July of 2018, three basic additions were proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service (Endangered Species Act Regulations, 2018). The first proposition entailed that listing, delisting, and downlisting will use criteria including economic and other impacts to increase public knowledge about conservation and the status of the ESA (Endangered Species Act Regulations, 2018). However, the classifying processes would continue to be done based on objective commercial and scientific evidence (Endangered Species Act Regulations, 2018). The next change would be that specific protections for threatened species would be based on a case-by-case situation (Endangered Species Act Regulations, 2018). However, thousands of species are protected under the ESA which makes it difficult to provide various amounts of support for each species (Endangered Species Act Regulations, 2018). The final revision pertains to the adding as a whole to the definition of destruction or adverse modification, causing it to become more broad (Endangered Species Act Regulations, 2018). This change could make it more difficult for meeting the limit of damage to a habitat enabling for less restrictions (Endangered Species Act Regulations, 2018). There could also be a potential extension where federal agencies will no longer need consults on projects associated with critical species from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service (Endangered Species Act Regulations, 2018). These potential amendments could have a vast impact not only on the Act, but species under its protection.

The Successes of the Endangered Species Act

The Endangered Species Act has been quite successful in the last 45 years that it has been enacted. The Act has protected 99% of its listed species from extinction from its passage in 1973 to 2013, and has shown a 90% recovery rate in over 100 native species (Center for Biological Diversity, n.d.). The Annual Review of Ecological Systemics found that possibly 172 species would have gone extinct between the years 1973 and 1998 if they did not have aid from the ESA (Westbrook, 2006). The United States Fish and Wildlife Service researched and found that 68% of the current listed species are safe and recovering, while 32% are getting worse; however, the longer that species get protection from the ESA, the more they improve (Westbrook, 2006). Millions of acres of threatened habitat have been preserved which has aided the survival and improvements of wildlife species (Center for Biological Diversity, n.d.). Another amazing aspect of law is that it continues to have strong public support amounting to 9 out of 10 Americans wanting a powerful Endangered Species Act (Center for Biological Diversity, n.d.). However, in the past 200 years, scientists found that about 539 species in the United States have gone extinct (Westbrook, 2011). A 2005 NatureServe database report found that over 9,000, or one-third, of native species in the United States are in danger of becoming extinct (Westbrook, 2011).

One amazing success story of the Endangered Species Act at work is of the Aleutian Canada goose. The geese were almost brought to the brink of extinction because of nonnative foxes brought to the area, damage to their habit, and overhunting by humans in Oregon and California (Center for Biological Diversity, n.d.). In 1967, a very small amount of geese were found on a secluded Alaskan island in the Aleutian islands and the Aleutian Canada goose was put on the endangered species list (Center for Biological Diversity, n.d.). Their listing led to recovery efforts such as curbing the nonnative fox populations and protecting their habitats during migration located in Oregon and California (Center for Biological Diversity, n.d.). In 1980, the Endangered Species Act brought about the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge which protected the nesting habitats of the geese (Center for Biological Diversity, n.d.). In 1975, the Aleutian Canada goose population was at 790, but it increased to 60,000 in 2005 (Center for Biological Diversity, n.d.). The geese species was even downlisted from endangered to threatened in 1990, and fully recovered with becoming delisted in 2001 (Center for Biological Diversity, n.d.). The delisting of the geese was 7 years before the estimated recovery rate (Center for Biological Diversity, n.d.).

Conclusion

Some people see the Endangered Species Act as a limit to land development and usage because critical habitats are protected (Corn & Wyatt, 2016). They also believe that the efforts of the ESA take away jobs and hurt natural resource companies like logging (Corn & Wyatt, 2016). A common theme of opponents to the ESA is the non-belief in climate change which ties in with the principles of the ESA (Corn & Wyatt, 2016).

The power that native species can have on society is astounding. Conserving critical habitats provides water sources, natural protection from natural disasters such as floods, and areas for eco-tourism and recreation (Westbrook, 2006). Helping endangered species recover is the moral thing to do, but it also has economic advantages as well (Westbrook, 2006). Recreational activities like fishing, hunting, and watching wildlife brings $108 billion yearly and makes it the seventh biggest enterprise in the United States because of the ESA’s efforts of conservation (Westbrook, 2006). These activities also provide 2.6 million jobs (Westbrook, 2006). A real example of this is in Yellowstone National Park. When the grey wolf was reintegrated into the ecosystem in 1995 due to the ESA, nearby communities gained over $10 million in revenue per year (Westbrook, 2006). Many endangered plant species have medicinal benefits. However, with the current global rates of extinction, about one major drug goes extinct every two years (Westbrook, 2006). Rosy periwinkle, a known cure for Hodgkin’s disease and some kinds of leukemia, was rescued from its extinction because of deforestation from protection of the ESA (Westbrook, 2006). In my opinion, the Endangered Species Act is a great addition to our country that not only gives benefits to wildlife and their habitats, but also to humans through medicines, recreation, jobs, and revenue. Therefore, if the world takes care of the animals, the benefits are endless.

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