On December 28, 1973, the United States made a historic commitment.
On that day, President Richard Nixon signed into law the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a bipartisan declaration that we would do our absolute best to conserve the nation’s rich diversity of wild life no matter how seemingly insignificant.
|West Indian manatees are widely distributed throughout the South during summer months, with sightings in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Photo by Tracy Colson/USFWS|
Thanks to the now 40-year-old ESA we can see success in icons of the wild-life world: Bald eagles and peregrine falcons soar above; gray wolves prowl the Rocky Mountains, Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest; manatees grace the coastal waters of the Gulf and South Atlantic; wild salmon and steelhead continue their annual migratory rituals. Virtually every corner of our nation can take pride in being part of the recovery process sparked by the ESA.
But it is also clear that back in 1973, the legislators under- stood Aldo Leopold’s admonishment that the essence of intelligent tinkering is to save all the pieces. And so, the ESA they wrote has also recovered lesser-known species like the Magazine Mountain shagreen snail, Tennessee purple coneflower, karner blue butterfly and Higgins eye pearlymussel.
While the ESA often provides the spark, the future of imperiled wild life depends more on us.
|A mother lynx watches warily as her kittens are evaluated by Colorado Division of Wildlife Biologists. Photo by Colorado Division of Wildlife|
If we want Canada lynx, if we want bull trout, if we want grizzlies or sage-grouse, then we have to make deliberate choices to make a place for them in the world. These choices will involve sacrifice.
Humanity thrives on convenient slogans such as “win- win.” I wish it were that simple. It would make my job so much easier. We could have it all — development, timber, water, energy and the wild life we love. Of course, as long as we’re dreaming, maybe we can bring back the passenger pigeon?
We can, and do, work together with partners, developers, landowners and industries to find compromises that balance the needs of imperiled species and economic growth. But balance implies compromise, meaning both human, economic aspirations and species conservation goals give way. For those who feel economic growth is too important to compromise, it is far easier to blame something other than our own greed and ambition. They blame a law they call inflexible, unworkable and unreason- able — the ESA becomes a perfect scapegoat.
|This is taken from the fall 2013 Fish & Wildlife News recognizing the ESA's 40th anniversary|
But the ESA is not at fault. It is only a tool. When you are hammering a nail and an errant blow causes the nail to bend, it is more convenient to blame the hammer than to acknowledge the limits of the carpenter.
We face many challenges in conserving biodiversity: a changing climate, habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, species invasion, wild-life trade, disease, water scarcity, pollution, over harvest and human indifference. The ESA is not a challenge.
|Bull trout are a cold-water fish of relatively pristine stream and lake habitats in western North America. Photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic Stock with Wade Fredenberg|
The ESA is a gift to the nation — an expression of our desire to conserve biodiversity, the health of the habitat and our willingness to work for it. For 40 years, it’s been a symbol of the U.S. commitment and leadership in conservation.
We have seen it succeed and we have seen it fail. It has worked miracles, like restoring the California condor to western skies. But we have also seen the dusky seaside sparrow vanish from the landscape, the coastal marshes of Florida forever silent of their song. The James Hole pupfish and Delta smelt may be soon to follow.
What I love about the ESA is this — it offers optimism and hope. Hope for the underdogs. It is the last barrier to extinction, and represents our collective commitment to protect our nation’s wild life for the future.
And the future will hold success and failure. The law will support both equally. The independent variable is our commitment as a nation.