When skeptics of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) ask me, as a professional biologist, what "good" is some obscure endangered mollusk, amphibian or plant, I often think back on the great words of the 19th century poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once said, "What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered." Their virtues may not be well known or understood by humans but that doesn't mean that they shouldn't exist and be preserved and protected.
While many species still remain a mystery, there are myriad others that are beloved and celebrated. Each winter, people gather in Sauk City, Wisc., during January to see the abundance of bald eagles that gather on the banks of the Mississippi River. The city is just one of hundreds nationwide that host festivals, tours and more to watch expanding populations of our national bird. Off the coast of California, ecotourism guides lead wildlife lovers in search of sea otters at play in the ocean; and in Massachusetts, tourists head off in boats to watch whales migrating through the Atlantic waters. In Tennessee, biologists are working hard to recover freshwater mussels that help filter impurities out of streams and rivers. And scientists are continuously exploring the medicinal value of imperiled amphibians, plants and other species.
What do these creatures all have in common? They have all been protected by the Endangered Species Act -- a law that was put in motion Dec. 28, 1973, and has just reached its 40th anniversary.
President Richard Nixon signed the act into law, stating:
"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."
Thanks, Mr. President, I could not have said it better!
Protecting imperiled wildlife from extinction not only makes good biological sense but economic sense as well. Many endangered species contribute to the maintenance of vital ecological services such as clean water, balanced ecosystems and abundant natural resources. Other protected species produce beneficial medicines and maintain booming wildlife-related recreation and tourism. And then there are listed species whose ecological or economic contributions are not yet fully appreciated or understood but whose loss would be irretrievable nonetheless.
With less than 1 percent of the species protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) ever having been delisted due to extinction, the ESA has been incredibly effective. Our country would look a lot different if we had not committed to the protections provided by this landmark legislation almost 40 years ago. Bald eagles would no longer be numerous along our shorelines, peregrine falcons would likely have vanished, grizzly bears and wolves would be missing from western landscapes, bull trout would no longer be swimming in our streams and black footed ferrets would have vanished from the prairies.
The ESA is the strongest federal environmental law on our books today. It has done more to conserve imperiled species, to transform the management of wildlife at the state level and to modify federal agency behavior than any other national environmental law.
The ESA provides a solid foundation for not only preventing extinction but for steadily improving the conservation prospects for the seriously imperiled species it protects. The ESA compels us to care about the future of our planet and provides a platform to ensure that we are mindful of our responsibilities to future generations.
But today, our wildlife and natural resources are up against some extreme challenges. Accelerating climate change, invasive species, and habitat destruction and development, along with intense pressures to increase energy production are among emerging threats to imperiled species. But none of these threats are as great as the opposition to the law from extreme anti-environmental politicians. At times the political fate and welfare of the ESA seems as uncertain as that of some of the species it so effectively shields.
Given the strength of its conservation mandate, the ESA has not surprisingly become a lightening rod for attack from large economic interests. It has been the subject of years of highly rancorous and polarized political debate and is one of the favorite environmental piñatas for ultra-conservative politicians.
Over the past few years, some members of Congress have made it almost a hobby to attack the ESA, proposing sweeping amendments that would waive key provisions of the law, strip funding for implementing the law, or even make it illegal to protect a particular species. Most of these attempts have failed, but one did pass in 2011 that removed gray wolves in the northern Rockies from the law's protections.
This was the first time in 39 years that Congress has unwisely intervened into the listing process under the ESA and made a biological value judgment of its own on the status of a protected species. The last thing that Congress should be weighing in on are complex biological issues under a statute like the ESA, issues which should best be left in the hands of professional biologists.
The ESA deserves much better treatment than this from Congress and the executive branch. It has delivered on what it was originally intended to do: reverse the slide of listed species toward extinction and buy time for their recovery. To be successful in saving imperiled wildlife, we must help the federal wildlife agencies in charge make the law work more effectively and efficiently for both wildlife and for people. We must demand bold conservation goals for endangered species and do our part to better mobilize the huge public constituency that exists for wildlife conservation. We should remind ourselves why we all should care.
My son Carson once gave me a drawing of a polar bear that I hung in my office near my desk. He wrote at the top, "Please save the polar bears mom!" He meant it. It's time for us to mean it too. Carson and all of the other young people in this country are counting on us to ensure that the world we leave behind is as good or better as the one that my generation inherited. Let's put politics aside, as they did 40 years ago, and recommit to a strong and successful Endangered Species Act that saves this nation's imperiled wildlife and plant heritage once and for all.