We Must Protect the Endangered Species Act

05/20/2016 03:19 pm ET Updated May 21, 2017

The greater sage-grouse, an iconic bird of the American West, won a fight last year with the help of ranchers and others to stay off the endangered species list.

Meanwhile, the golden-cheeked warbler, a flashy little Texas songbird that weighs less than an ounce is in a battle with powerful developers to stay on the same list.

Audubon and bird lovers are supporting both efforts.

Why?

Because the Endangered Species Act is giving birds a fighting chance for survival in both cases.

Just a few months ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the greater sage-grouse would not be added to the endangered species list. Audubon supported that decision because it showed how ranchers, farmers, federal agencies, states, industry and green groups had banded together to create plans that--if implemented well--will help safeguard the threatened habitat of the brown-and-white, chicken-sized bird.

We called it a new lease on life for the greater sage-grouse and the entire sagebrush ecosystem: The plant life that provides cover from predators, serves as shelter for nesting birds in summer and supplies the grouse's sole source of food in winter.

Brian Rutledge, Audubon's vice president and policy advisor for the region, said it best: "This is the kind of cooperation the Endangered Species Act was designed to encourage. It wasn't intended to list everything under the sun; it was to motivate conservation before listing became necessary."

Unfortunately, the act itself is under assault in the U.S. Congress and in states across the country. Federal lawmakers have tried to kill it, gut it and cut off the funding to enforce it. For example, language in the current National Defense Authorization Act bill threatens to hamstring the Department of Interior's sage-grouse conservation management and blow up years of collaboration under the guise of military readiness. The Pentagon has had to publicly state that sage-grouse conservation plans pose no threat to the operations of the United States armed forces. The sage-grouse saga continues.

Now flash to Texas Hill Country in the south-central heart of the Lone Star State--a landscape of green hills and rocky canyons--and voraciously expanding urban and suburban sprawl.

Texas Hill Country is home to the golden-cheeked warbler, a true Lone Star State native. It does not breed or raise its young anywhere else in the world except in 33 Texas counties. The striking black-and-white songbird with the brilliant golden face is finicky when it comes to housing materials, building its nests from the bark of mature juniper trees.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put the warbler on the endangered species list in 1990 because its habitat in Hill Country was being sliced up and sold off to developers at such an alarming rate.

Even with the protection of the act, an estimated 1.5 million acres (nearly a third of the golden-cheeked warbler's home range) disappeared between 1999 and 2011.

And now a coalition of groups and individuals would like to strip the warbler of its safety net altogether so developers have an easier time paving over more Hill Country habitat.

The little songbird is up against some Goliaths that include former Texas Comptroller, Susan Combs and current Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush--grandson of former President George H. W. Bush--along with a foundation supported by billionaire David Koch.

We support property rights. And we know that a growing Texas needs new housing and flourishing businesses. We prefer to protect birds through win-win solutions rather than mandates, as in the case of the sage-grouse.

But when those efforts don't work, the Endangered Species Act becomes some species' best- and sometimes last - chance for survival.

That's where the golden-cheeked warbler is today.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviews the warbler's condition every five years to evaluate whether it should remain on the endangered list. In its most recent report in August 2014, the service concluded the bird "continues to be in danger of extinction throughout its range" due to "the ongoing widespread destruction of its habitat."

This is bad news for these little heroes, particularly given the efforts of many landowners, nonprofits (including Travis Audubon Society and other Hill Country Audubon chapters), local, state and federal wildlife agencies, and other land managers.

Once we lose a species we never get it back. There are always those who ask, "What's the big deal about one bird?" The web of life - the creation all around us - is ours to protect. And we know that if a species like the golden-cheeked warbler is in trouble, it means entire ecosystems are in trouble.

That's where the Endangered Species Act provides critical protections.

Americans overwhelmingly support the protections for the birds and landscapes they love. In public opinion polls, voters consistently support the law, whether they live in a red state, blue state or purple state.

Do we like it when birds are so threatened that they need to be on the endangered species list?

Definitely not.

But do birds and people need a safety net--the Endangered Species Act--when all else fails to protect our ecosystems?

Absolutely.

David Yarnold is President and CEO of the National Audubon Society.