By Michele S. Byers
When President Richard Nixon signed the landmark Endangered Species Act 45 years ago, he said, “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 1973, the outlook was grim for many animals and plants. Bald eagles were in danger of extinction. So were the gray wolves, peregrine falcons, humpback whales, Key deer, manatees and dozens of other species.
The intent of the Endangered Species Act was to prevent the extinction of plant and animal life by eliminating or reducing threats.
In the early 1970s conservation was nonpartisan and the legislation sailed through Congress with overwhelming support.
Today the Endangered Species Act is a global model that is popular among Americans of all ages and backgrounds. A recent poll by the Center for Biological Diversity found that 90 percent of respondents support the protection of endangered species.
But today the Endangered Species Act is under unprecedented attack from the Trump administration and Congress, who have advanced a series of proposals – both bills and rule changes – that would gut current protections.
• Proposed new rules would require costs to be considered when listing a species as endangered or threatened. This would inject economics – and politics – into what currently are science-based decisions. Commercial interests – including drilling for oil and gas and building roads, pipelines, mines and other industrial projects – would have greater influence on decisions about what species are protected.
• The rule changes could eliminate the consideration of climate change threats when making decisions about protecting species and their habitats. Countless species are already facing damaging changes to their habitats, and many – especially trees and other plants – cannot adapt to rapidly changing conditions.
• The rule changes would remove protections for new species listed as “threatened,” which currently are given the same protections as species listed as “endangered.” Threatened species would be protected on a case-by-case basis rather than uniformly and automatically, further opening the door to political and commercial interests.
• Dozens of amendments before Congress would undermine the Endangered Species Act itself.
Opponents of the Endangered Species Act claim it is a failure because only 3 percent of the more than 2,000 species listed as endangered have recovered to the point where they can safely be taken off the list.
But the fact is that recovery often takes decades for most species, and many are rebounding, but still need protection. Hundreds of species on the endangered list would be gone today without the law’s protections. In the last 45 years, only 10 listed species have gone extinct – some of them may have been gone by the time they made the list.
As the Defenders of Wildlife organization notes, “Our nation and our planet face an extinction crisis of epic proportion, with species’ extinction happening at a rate at least 100 times greater than what would be considered normal. Scientists warn we could lose half of all Earth’s species in as little as 33 years.”
Today, New Jerseyans regularly enjoy magnificent sights unimaginable in 1973, including bald eagles, humpback whales and peregrine falcons.
All of our endangered species deserve the same chance to recover. Our nation needs the strong, science-based Endangered Species Act. The Endangered Species Act must remain in full force to ensure the protection of our natural heritage for current and future generations.
To learn more about the Endangered Species Act, go to the Center for Biological Diversity’s website at https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org