The Endangered Species Act at 30
December 23, 2003
Can you imagine America without the bald eagle? It would say a great deal about us if we allowed our national symbol to pass into extinction. It may sound extreme to suggest that the eagle was on a trajectory that would end in eradication, but that is exactly how it was in the 1970s for our national symbol, along with many other birds and animals.
Americans recognized the danger to their natural heritage and collaborated across party lines to find a solution. The Endangered Species Act slowed and halted a seemingly inexorable slide toward extinction for too many of America's wild birds and animals. Signed on Dec. 28, 1973, by President Richard Nixon, the act is a model worldwide for protecting wildlife and habitats.
The ESA's effectiveness is obvious today. California species such as the brown pelican, peregrine falcon and gray whale are again abundant enough to have been removed from the endangered list. The state's sea otters and condors would simply not be here without this landmark bill.
The bald eagle is among the act's most dramatic success stories. Down to only a few hundred breeding pairs by 1973, this bird has bounced back thanks to ESA-mandated programs, bringing the number of nesting pairs into the thousands. Now, American schoolchildren once again have a chance to see this most majestic of our birds flying over their communities. No myth, no symbol on a flag or seal, but a living, breathing embodiment of our national spirit. It is something to be proud of for many reasons, not the least of which is a lesson in the potential of American lawmaking.
Though effective, the ESA is not without detractors. Critics want it gutted, claiming it protects "unimportant" species and halts development. In fact, the act allows almost any development to go forward, as long as provision is made to protect imperiled species it affects. The law sets the bar high when a developer or polluter wants to remove the last of a species from the planet forever, and it should.
Despite critics' arguments, the act actually pushes both the national and California economies forward. U.S. consumers spent nearly billion on wildlife watching in 2001. That year, .6 billion was added to California's economy by wildlife watchers, many of whom took trips to see gray whales, condors, sea otters and other animals that can be viewed nowhere else in the country. That they can be seen at all is to the act's credit.
When naysayers make claims for weakening the law, they also reveal indifference to what we nearly lost forever -- and what is still at risk. Since the inception of the act, human impacts on wilderness have snowballed. Bird populations such as the cerulean warbler (a species we believe should be listed as endangered) have declined by as much as 75 percent since 1973. Sprawl increases daily, wetlands disappear and special interests seek to undermine environmental protection to increase their short-term profits.
The ESA needs to be in place to act as a balance. Perhaps the best example of why is found in two species that haven't recovered.
The act was needed, but came too late, for the dusky seaside sparrow, a small bird found in the Cape Canaveral area. Its habitat was destroyed by unchecked coastal development in the 1960s; the last bird died in captivity in 1987.
But the California condor may yet be saved. Captive breeding, field studies and identification and removal of toxic threats, along with the reintroduction of individual condors to Central and Southern California -- all mandated by the ESA -- are taking place to resurrect this bird. It's a victory in progress: Nearly 50 of these imposing and stately creatures are back where they belong, when only a decade ago, this bird was officially extinct in the wild.
This is owing completely to the ESA. Why we would weaken a demonstrable success that has only positive benefits to wildlife and to the economy -- and to the health of us all - is something the act's enemies have a hard time defending convincingly.
Earlier this month, a celebration played out on Capitol Hill in Washington. Lawmakers, conservationists and even wildlife came together to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. They celebrated because it is a success. They celebrated because the act is needed now more than ever. They celebrated because, when supported, the act does what it was designed to do: save species from extinction.
Significantly, the wildlife representing proof of the act's effectiveness was a bald eagle -- there thanks to the ESA.
Robert Perciasepe is chief operating officer of the National Audubon Society - http://www.audubon.org