Endangered Species Act: Succeeding Where Success Seems Improbable

Forty years ago, on December 28, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law. The “ESA,” as we commonly refer to it today, was one in a series of cornerstone environmental laws enacted in response to public concern over a series of unfolding environmental crises.  The plight of iconic species in the face of those crises — including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, brown pelicans, gray whales, grizzly bear, manatee and alligators –- helped catalyze that public concern.

Gray whale

Gray whales were was one of the first whales protected from whaling. Photo by Merrill Gosho/NOAA

When it was enacted, it had near unanimous political support, but today, the ESA is, in many regards, the embodiment of the current political divisions that define a national and global struggle between environmental protection and economic development. Aldo Leopold taught us that the essence of “intelligent tinkering” is to “save every cog and wheel.”  It sounds so sensible, but we know that as humans occupy more and more of the planet’s ecological space – consuming more of its resources, altering habitat, moving species, changing the climate itself – that we are far beyond any notion of intelligent tinkering. 

And yet, here is this elegant law, asking us to pause and contemplate the biological consequences of our planetary conquest.  And maybe that’s the real rub.  It’s another inconvenient truth.  We know, in our heart-of-hearts, that we can’t ask the planet to continue giving more people more food, more fuel, more fiber and more fulsome bank accounts, without leaving less and less for the remainder of what we call biological diversity. Wish that it wasn’t so, but it really is.

And into this chasm, the ESA has thrust the women and men of two small but capable organizations: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and NOAA Fisheries. Over the past 40 years, they have made all the difference. Succeeding where success seemed improbable – like bringing wolves back into the American landscape.  They have, quite literally, held life in their hands and minds – like those last few California condors and black-footed ferrets pulled from the wild and into captive breeding. It’s beyond amazing. Actually, it’s inspiring.

Thumbnail cover of Fish & Wildlife News Fall 2013. 
Fish & Wildlife News looks at the ESA.

My early career (1982-1995) was as a professional staff member in the U.S. House of Representatives on the Committee that wrote the ESA and last reauthorized it, in 1990 – the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries. One of my former bosses on the Committee taught me that things like common sense and good intention cannot be legislated. As Aldo Leopold said, nothing so important as an ethic can ever be written. You write the best law you can and hand it to people you assume will possess those capacities. Fortunately, the employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries have shown ample supplies of both common sense and good intention.

Surely, there have been lapses, but those have occurred almost exclusively within the variable ranks of political leadership overlaying the agencies’ 40-year stewardship of the law. That will be a continuing challenge.

prairie bush cloverPrairie bush clover is a federally threatened prairie plant found only in the tallgrass prairie region of four midwestern states. Photo by Pil Delphey/USFWS

Yes, we have had help from great partners in the environmental and conservation communities, and from many private landowners.  Yes, our state partners have been, with very few exceptions, exceptional. Yes, our federal agency counterparts, although slow to initially recognize a responsibility for species conservation, have generally come to embrace it. And yes, there have been great examples within the business community, although we still have much progress to make here.  But it has been, is and will be the women and men of these two great public institutions who remain the cornerstones of this incredible legacy of success and progress.

So, if there is a future, in the wild, for something called African elephant, or Bengal tiger, or bull trout, or greater sage-grouse, or prairie bush clover, or purple cat’s paw pearlymussel, it is these men and women who will be the decisive factor in making it so.  Sure, we have great partners, and they will play key roles.  But these public servants, and these exceptional government agencies, are the foundation upon which this story will continue to build.

We will get this great nation to contemplate how it might make space for these creatures as the country pursues its continued economic growth.  It will not be in all of their historical ranges. It will not be in all their historical abundances. But if we’re thoughtful enough, capable enough, truthful and credible enough, then I believe the American people will be willing to do what is needed to prevent extinction, and maybe enough to support recovery.

And we need to realize that is our goal.  We cannot alter fundamental laws of physics and conservation of matter and energy.  As the world’s population expands from today’s 7 billion, through 9 billion at mid-century, and then heads toward 11 billion, we will convert more of the planet’s available mass and energy to support human ecology. What once supported the passenger pigeon has already been converted to create abundance in our pantries and grandeur in our pantheons.  There is still time for the pallid sturgeon, but only if we work to carve it a space in tomorrow’s increasingly human dominated ecosystem.  It cannot be our goal to work miracles, but maybe we can achieve more of what seems improbable – like saving the rhinoceros from its seeming slide toward oblivion. The last 40 years prove that there is reason for hope.

rhinnos

Can we keep rhinos from extinction? Photo by Richard Ruggerio/USFWS

And that’s the most important thing to celebrate on this anniversary.  The ESA is about hope.  And those who have been entrusted with its implementation have earned the public's faith in the possibilities.

So, my wish on this anniversary is that the women and men who have made this incredible success will pull themselves up by the bootstraps and do what they have demonstrated they can do better than anyone. Be hopeful. Define optimism. Expand the confidence of your expertise. Listen to and learn from well-intentioned criticism. Be pathologically adaptive and innovative. Succeed where success seems improbable!

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Last updated: August 31, 2011