Though it has come under attack from the right wing, Americans by and large value and support the Endangered Species Act, as well as the wildlife it protects. And on Feb. 19, the Center for Biological Diversity delivered a report to Congress to prove it.
The report was based on a poll the organization conducted, which found that two out of three U.S. citizens want the Endangered Species Act either strengthened or simply left alone, but not circumvented or weakened. Called A Wild Success, the 282-page report includes more than 200 letters and op-eds written by activists, politicians, workers and other Americans who praised the law and the importance of maintaining it. Specifically, 42 percent of Americans believe the act should be improved, 25 percent simply want it to be left alone, and only 24 percent believe it should be weakened. Fifty percent, meanwhile, think the country has not done enough to protect wildlife.
"The message is crystal clear," said Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director with the Center for Biological Diversity. "The vast majority of Americans support endangered species and the Endangered Species Act. Congress must do everything in its power to protect it. The fact is, it has a 99 percent success rate in preventing extinction for wildlife under its care and has helped protect millions of acres of wildlife habitat. It's hard to argue with that kind of success."
The law, which experienced its 40th anniversary in December 2013, has been the focal point of renewed legislative attacks from Republicans, and has recently become a rallying point for activists concerned about the welfare of endangered animals and plants. The number of species listed by the law has been truncated since 2001, due to revisions that dictated only the current locations of endangered animals be considered, rather than the former. This meant that species whose numbers are still low can no longer be restored to former habitats; this arguably circumvents the overall efficacy of the act itself. In addition, funding for enforcement of the act has been repeatedly slashed by Congress.
With the delivery of this report, an uptick in the fight to preserve the law is expected to follow, as more activists become aware of what is happening. And there is certainly a scientific basis for the argument to keep the Endangered Species Act around: Scientists estimate that without it, at least 227 species would likely have gone extinct since the law's passage.
Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental journalist Robert B. Semple Jr., who authored one of the op-eds collected in the center's report, said of the efforts to crush the act, "Right-wing critics of the law like to point out that less than two percent of the 1,500 or so animal and plant species listed as endangered or threatened under the law have actually recovered to the point where they can be removed from the list. But most of those species, once headed for extinction, can hardly be expected to rebuild healthy, sustainable populations overnight."
And, he noted, "the Act has saved the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, the California condor, the American alligator, the Florida panther, and the gray wolf," though the latter is once more under attack.
He added, "Since the Endangered Species Act has widespread public support, it seems unthinkable that Congress would roll it back. But with this Congress, you never know."
He remarked that when it was first passed, the legislation was detested by corporations "for elevating the needs of nature above the needs of commerce." Semple believed "the act would stand zero chance of passage in today's poisoned political climate."
George Fenwick, president of nonprofit organization American Bird Conservancy, remarked, "When this law is allowed to work as it was designed to, it has been remarkably effective. Unfortunately, it has been undercut for years by those who would gladly sacrifice rare species to boost short-term profits. In Congress, bills antagonistic to the act have been unveiled, like the Endangered Species Management Self-Determination Act, which if passed would require governors and Congress to sign off on all new endangered species listings and allow governors to take over management of species that reside solely in their states' borders. It would also automatically remove protected plants and animals from the list after five years."
Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan added, "The Endangered Species Act enacted some of the first comprehensive guidelines to protect animals from extinction. Science is at its core, and should remain so. Sadly, political agendas threaten to undo that. From efforts to defund the agencies that oversee its implementation, to the forces that exploit loopholes in the law to put industry profits ahead of our planet, defending the [act] will require a diligence the likes of which we have not witnessed before."
Regarding how many Republicans and corporations seem to be viewing the matter, he concluded, "We cannot look at people on the other end of the boat and say, 'Your end of the boat is sinking.' All of us are in this boat, and we must lead the world in maintaining a vibrant, thriving, and healthy ecosystem."
Photo: Activists take part in a demonstration against the delisting of the gray wolf, arguing that it deserves the continued protection offered by the Endangered Species Act. DefendersBlog.org