Don’t kill the Endangered Species Act

The Endangered Species Act is in jeopardy. Forces hostile to the law are now running Washington. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, says the law is not working and must be “modernized.” Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, says the law has been “hijacked” by environmental extremists and must be “repealed and replaced” with a law giving states the ultimate authority over the fate of imperiled species.

Opponents of the ESA falsely claim that the law has failed in its basic goal of species recovery. Barrasso cites the fact that only 47 of the 1,642 species currently listed under the act have recovered to the point where the law’s protection is no longer needed. Barrasso offers this explanation: “As a doctor, if I admit 100 patients to the hospital and only 3 recover enough under my treatment to be discharged, I would deserve to lose my medical license.”

This argument ignores the fundamental reasons that species become endangered in the first place. Habitat loss from farming, mining, logging, road building, oil and gas development, urban sprawl, and many other economic activities account for more than 80 percent of the species on the list. In some cases, like the black-footed ferret, Kirtland’s warbler, and California red-legged frog, species have lost more than 90 percent of their historic range.

And contrary to the meme of the “pit bull of environmental law,” the ESA does not prevent the continued loss of habitat. In fact, the law specifically allows continued destruction of habitat so long as it does not “jeopardize” species survival. But studies confirm that jeopardy findings are extremely rare despite significant impacts on vulnerable animals.

The ESA also allows “incidental take permits,” which are in effect licenses to kill endangered species and destroy habitat in exchange for commitments from landowners to offset those losses through techniques that may or may not prove effective over time. And should these plans fail, landowners are given ironclad assurances that they will not be asked to do anything more. The costs of failure fall squarely on the species, not the developer.

No wonder recovery takes so long when so much habitat has already been chopped up, and when the continuing threats from pollution, invasive species and the ecosystem-altering effects of climate change pose ever greater dangers. The ecological damage caused by the unsustainable consumption of natural resources in a highly industrialized society cannot be reversed in a matter of decades.

In fact, it is a wonder that the act has succeeded as well as it has against overwhelming odds and little support from the Congress.

The ESA is wildly popular with the American public. A recent poll conducted by Tulchin Research for Defenders of Wildlife found that 90 percent of Americans support strengthening the ESA. Sixty-six percent of respondents rejected the idea that protection of species must come at the expense of jobs and the economy. Perhaps more important to members of Congress, 68 percent of registered voters say they are more likely to vote for a member of Congress who supports environmental safeguards like the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

This is not to say the ESA is perfect. Improvements are badly needed to address the growing threats to our global wildlife heritage. The ESA cannot hope to tackle this challenge alone. But with adequate funding of the act’s core functions, more incentives for private conservation, a broader approach to species protection and habitat conservation, better management of habitat on public lands, and a science- based approach to decision making, more species will be recovered more quickly.

When that happens, the people and communities that depend on healthy ecosystems — which is all of us — will be much the better for it.

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