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It's Endangered Species Day!

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Red Lodge | May 17, 2013 05:00 AM

Today, the third Friday in May, is Endangered Species Day. Passed by a unanimously-supported Senate resolution several years ago, the holiday is intended to encourage us “…to become educated about and aware of threats to species, success stories in species recovery and the opportunity to promote species conservation worldwide.”

The Endangered Species Act (ESA), which is used to protect and to recover vulnerable floras and faunas, was the first comprehensive federal law passed to protect wildlife and habitat and it marks its 40th anniversary this year. When President Nixon signed it into law (after near-unanimous congressional support) he remarked, “"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.”

Spotted owl drawing
Spotted owl, by Endangered Species Day 2013 Youth Art Contest Semi-finalist, Ann C. Sonu.

Since then the ESA has grown into the toughest federal environmental law on the books.  It has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the species listed since its inception and today watches over over 1,400 U.S. species. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) which, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, administers the ESA, 68 percent of listed species whose conditions are known, are stable or improving.

Like any highly effective piece of legislation, the ESA has led a politically polarized existence. No more so than in the West, where grazing, logging, population growth and energy development (including oil and gas, solar and wind) compete with wildlife for public and private land. Opponents to the ESA like to say the law prioritizes the survival of creatures other than humans but it’s the balance between the two which makes it such a dynamic piece of legislation. Through the many phases of listing, including establishing critical habitat, the ESA specifically requires that human economic needs be considered alongside the survival requirements of other species. Infringements imposed on private industry are exceedingly rare.

Regardless, some Western species, including bison, woodland caribou, jaguar, northern spotted owl and grizzly bear, still engender intense debate. Grizzlies, which were on the very first list of species to protect with the ESA, are the latest in the spotlight. The Northern Continental Divide population of grizzlies, numbering roughly 1,000 and including those in Glacier National Park, may be de-listed before long. The FWS is currently taking public comments on a draft conservation strategy which would lead management of that population when struck from the ESA list. This plan does not include the estimated 500-700 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which have their own, epic de-listing effort currently awaiting resolution.

Grizzly bear cubs
Grizzly bear cubs. Courtesy of the NPS.

Some conservationists feel de-listing the grizzly, like the gray wolf, is coming too soon. Last year management of the entire Northern Rocky Mountain Distinct Population Segment of gray wolves was declared “recovered” and reverted to state authority in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming; in a small part of north central Utah; and in the eastern one-third of Washington and Oregon. Only time will tell if that population can stand on its own.

Without the ESA we’d likely have no grizzlies or gray wolves, or bald eagles, gray whales, American alligators, California condors, brown pelicans or peregrine falcons, which have all recovered under its protective wing. But the legislation only works if species have dedicated recovery plans in place, in time, to give them a fighting chance at survival.

Once the FWS has seen the science on a species, and green lights it for protection, most then enter a purgatory called “warranted but precluded,” which means there are “higher priority” species in line ahead of them competing for those extremely limited protection efforts and funds. These “candidate species” (which now number 182) once lingered in limbo for a decade or more, and dozens went extinct while waiting.

But an agreement between the FWS and two environmental groups in 2011 forced the feds to step on the gas in making determinations, in exchange for those groups easing up on perpetual petitions and lawsuits. In its first couple of years, the FWS picked mostly the low hanging fruit of species to advance; those plants and animals that were the least politically contentious.

Oahu tree snails
Oahu tree snails by Endangered Species Day 2013 Youth Art Contest Semi-finalist, Sophia Cleek.

But, more recently, it made a controversial determination on the dunes sagebrush lizard, which dwells in the oak dunes of southeastern New Mexico and West Texas, where drilling and ranching is also in residence. In light of what the agency calls “unprecedented commitments to voluntary conservation agreements” in both states FWS decided not to list the lizard.

It’s this type of deal opponents of the federal protection of the lesser prairie chicken and North American wolverine (both proposed threatened species), and greater sage-grouse and Canada lynx (both candidate species) hope to strike. In recent years, as land use competition has intensified, recovery of vulnerable species has become as much about what’s done to keep a species from landing on the list (including conservation easements on private land) as what measures are taken if a species is designated threatened or endangered. Again, only time will tell if this across-the-board approach will achieve the same recovery goals that have marked the ESA’s success up to this time.

While it seems like the ESA stands sentinel to protect wildlife, the law is holistic in that it also recognizes all species—from giants like the blue whale and polar bear, to the diminutive Mission Blue butterfly and desert pupfish—are beneficial to humans on innumerable levels. The benefits of biological diversity are many and varied including balanced ecosystems which support clean water, food supplies and life-saving drugs. Well-rounded ecosystems protect our investments (by mitigating floods) are economic drivers and enrich our lives aesthetically and spiritually.

However important keeping the ESA strong is, the efforts of the FWS and NOAA are chronically underfunded. Spending on species listing and conservation amounted to .008 percent of the 2011 federal budget. That proportion has not changed significantly for the past three years of spending. Less than one dollar per year per U.S. resident is spent on endangered species conservation.

Mission blue butterfly
Mission Blue butterfly. Courtesy of the FWS.

Another uphill battle for the ESA is the blind eye the Obama administration has turned to land conservation. On only two occasions in history, since the Wilderness Act of 1964 was passed, has Congress adjourned without protecting wilderness—one of those was the recent 112th Congress, despite more than two dozen or more bills proposed to do so. The 113th Congress is doing only marginally better. In the first quarter of this year almost 280,000 acres of the West have been leased for energy development. During the same time, just over 256,000 acres have earned permanent federal protection.

“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 19th century. That’s an overly romantic idea, perhaps, and the weed a symbol for wildness and freedom that is lost to us in the 21st century. But for what we know to be the value of endangered species, and for that we have yet to realize, our celebration of Endangered Species Day should be tempered with the acknowledgement that we can do better.

Heather Hansen is a journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at CU Law School, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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