director Blog : Endangered Species Act

Partners Essential to Recovery, and Other Lessons from the Oregon Chub

On Tuesday, a 3-½ inch minnow found only in Oregon’s Willamette Valley made a big splash.  No longer threatened with extinction, the Oregon chub became the first fish proposed for removal from the Endangered Species list.  

Oregon chub

Oregon chubs swim at Finley National Wildlife Refuge in Corvallis, Oregon. Photo by Rick Swart, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

We listed the Oregon chub as endangered in 1993 for several reasons. Mainly, its native floodplain habitat was disappearing, and the fish was losing out to such nonnative fish as the bass and bluegill. In 1993, just eight known populations with fewer than 1,000 fish were known to exist. Thanks to lots of hard work, the population now stands at more than 150,000 fish at 80 locations. Just stunning! 

The chub’s recovery is something we’re proud of. But what’s even better is how it recovered.

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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.

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Endangered Species Act: Hope for the Underdog

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.

manateeWest 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.

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Last updated: August 31, 2011