The Endangered Species Act: Help save the law that protects America’s endangered wildlife!

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) conserves animals and plants which are endangered or threatened with extinction and conserves the ecosystems on which those species depend. It was enacted in 1973, and was done so, nearly unanimously, with strong bipartisan support. The ESA is known for its strong, yet simple purpose: to prevent the extinction of threated and endangered species, conserve the ecosystems they depend on, and promote their recovery. Without the ESA, we would not have recovered our national symbol: the bald eagle, now with over 300 nesting pairs in Indiana, or the peregrine falcon, which is nesting successfully now in several Indiana cities.

The drafters of the ESA recognized that successful wildlife conservation and recovery must rely on sound science, requiring all key decisions made under the ESA be based on the best available science. This requirement ensured there would be no political interference with identifying, protecting and recovering threatened and endangered species.

Based on data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the ESA has saved 99 percent of listed species from extinction, including those found here in Indiana like the Indiana bat. 47 species have been removed from the endangered species list due to recovery, including the iconic bald eagle, peregrine falcon, American alligator, and brown pelican. In its 44-year history, only 10 listed species have been officially declared extinct. Additionally, scientists have predicted that 227 animals and plants would have gone extinct by 2006 if not for the conservation measures of the ESA.

The ESA also has a citizen lawsuit provision that allows private citizens to hold federal agencies accountable through the federal court system. It is a vital way in which the law includes an explicit mechanism for reviewing agency decisions and resolving disputes over agencies’ implementation of the law. Such lawsuits have played a major role in enforcement and interpretation of many of the act’s provisions. Congress should not undermine citizens’ rights to go to court in the name of protecting species and their habitat.

Threats to the Endangered Species Act

Unfortunately, the mounting volume of ESA-related legislation proposed by members of Congress over the past decade have all sought to roll back and undermine ESA protections. The efforts continue to be pushed forward, as part of an overall agenda to weaken or gut the nation’s premier and most effective wildlife conservation law.

Some of the most alarming attacks on the ESA seek to put decisions to protect species at risk (known as listing) in the hands of Congress, not scientists. Attacks have been launched through legislation to eliminate protection for (delisting) some populations of gray wolves, the sage grouse, the lesser prairie chicken, and others. One measure would even delist ALL species, allowing them to regain their federal protections only through a joint resolution of Congress.

Those who seek to weaken the ESA often cite a tension between private landowners and the federal government, alleging the ESA stands in the way of progress. But reality and perception are often very different, and experience reveals that the ESA is a very flexible law. For example, many people don’t realize that activities on private land with no federal involvement do not require consultation — which is a review of the project for impacts on endangered animals or plants. Additionally, private landowners whose activities do involve federal permits or funding can obtain a permit to “take” a protected species if that take is incidental to some other lawful activity — such as building a marina or a shopping mall — and if the landowner agrees to certain conservation measures. Nothing in the ESA prevents choosing conservation methods that will lower costs to society, industry, or landowners, as long as the chosen methods still achieve conservation goals.

Others in Congress propose that the federal ESA should be dismantled by deferring species protection to the states. This is problematic for several reasons: First, realize that wildlife or plants often come under the protections of the ESA after years of chronic underinvestment in habitat conservation at the state level. As a result, some of the species have declined so much that recovery becomes far more difficult and expensive. A study released last month by the University of California Irvine shows all states are under-equipped to take on the level of wildlife protection provided by the federal ESA. Indiana fell in the bottom third of states in terms of their preparedness to protect listed wildlife if the federal ESA were eliminated. While Indiana identifies and lists native plants at risk, they have no legal protection. There is no state level list for insects, meaning no insect pollinators get state level protections. That means federally protected insect pollinators here in Indiana, like the Karner blue butterfly and the Rusty-patched bumblebee, would lose all endangered species protections.

 

Ensuring that the Endangered Species Act continues to be effective in protecting plants and animals at risk

The most important thing Congress can do to improve the Act’s effectiveness is to fully fund it. It does not need legislative changes to meet its goals, but rather, is starved for funding to meet those goals. The shortfall in funding has translated to over 400 U.S. listed species having no recovery plans. Furthermore, funding shortfalls mean American businesses and landowners are facing delays in requests for ESA permits for a range of activities including bridge repairs, road construction and housing developments. It is imperative for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have the resources to properly evaluate these activities for their effects on recovery of endangered plants and animals, so that the ESA can accommodate conservation and human activities simultaneously.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is not broken and does not need to be fixed. The ESA has been improved by continuous administrative reforms that have made it work better – both for the species it protects and for landowners and other stakeholders affected by its provisions. Therefore, Congressional interference is not needed to make changes to the ESA. The only action Congress should take regarding the ESA is to fully fund it.  Read the letter from over 400 organizations urging Congress to protect the Endangered Species Act.

Our position and HEC’s track record in conserving wildlife habitats and our native plants and animals

The intrinsic value placed on the presence of diverse and abundant plant and animal species on the landscape has long been hailed as a fundamental American principle. A July 2015 poll conducted by Tulchin Research on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife and Earthjustice revealed that 90 percent of American voters support the ESA. The support extended across gender, age, and political lines, with the law being backed by overwhelming majorities of self-identified liberals (96 percent support), moderates (94 percent), and conservatives (82 percent). A poll from December 2016 by Hart Research on behalf of the Center for American Progress revealed that 81 percent of American voters agree that saving at-risk wildlife from going extinct is an important goal for the federal government.

The 2015 Tulchin poll showed that by a margin of nearly 4-to-1, a strong majority of voters said that decisions about which species should be protected under the ESA should be science-based and made by FWS biologists, rather than Congress.

It is for these reasons that the Hoosier Environmental Council is engaging our fellow Hoosiers in the name of our threatened and endangered wildlife. In recent years, HEC is best known for our policy work at the local and state level. But in fact, we have a long track record of protecting wildlife on the federal level too. Our first major statewide campaign, over 30 years ago, was to influence the management plan for the Hoosier National Forest; shifting priorities for Indiana’s largest public forest from ones that were pro-development to pro-conservation. We helped lead coalition efforts to establish the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge and Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge near Madison, Indiana. HEC has been a member of the Endangered Species Coalition for years and lobbied on efforts regarding the ESA and conservation efforts in the Federal Farm Bill, which comes up again in 2018. We have pursued legal actions in the name of protecting wildlife through the Endangered Species Act, doing work on behalf of bats dating back 20 years.  Through a specific legal action, we played a part in the complete overhaul of national policy on public watershed projects undertaken by the predecessor to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Take Action

Are America’s endangered wildlife, plants and their habitats important to you? Would you like to learn how to become more involved in our efforts to safeguard the Endangered Species Act? Great! We’re here to help. Please email HEC’s Wilderness Protection Campaign Coordinator, Marianne Holland at mholland@hecweb.org with your name, email, phone number, city of residence, and a brief description of your inspiration for wanting to help save the Endangered Species Act. Let’s work together to save the ESA, and by doing so help protect our endangered wildlife!

One step you can take now is to email Senators Joe Donnelly and Todd Young and urge them to oppose any new bills, and amendments or riders to other bills, that would weaken the Endangered Species Act.

Explore the Resources

There are eight federally-listed vertebrate species found in Indiana, including birds like the whooping crane and interior least tern.  Endangered mammals include the Indiana bat and gray bat.  The ESA also protects invertebrates like freshwater mussels — 10 found in Indiana are federally endangered or threatened.  These animals are indicators of the health of our streams and rivers.  Several insects are also listed, including invaluable pollinators such as the Rusty-patched bumble bee, just listed earlier this year.  The ESA also protects six plant species in Indiana, including running buffalo clover and Mead’s milkweed.

Read more about the Endangered Species Act here and here.

Find the lists of federal and state-listed species in Indiana here and here.

Read about the Indiana DNR’s work to conserve Indiana’s endangered wildlife.

 

Read HEC’s newly updated Investing in Wildlife Conservation Report!