Keeping the Endangered Species Act Strong

Biological diversity provides food, medicines, clean water, and many other products and services we rely upon every day. The 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA), signed by President Richard Nixon, is designed to protect biological diversity and has become one of the most important and successful environmental laws in the United States.

The law requires the government to identify endangered and threatened species and work to ensure their survival. One of the great strengths of the Endangered Species Act is its reliance on the best available scientific information.

The government lists species as endangered or threatened and protects them by conserving their habitats and restricting wildlife trade. Many laws allow for decisions to draw on a wide variety of factors. The ESA, however, requires that the federal government base its decision to protect a species solely on “the best scientific and commercial data available.”

Right whale and calf. Photo: NOAA

Assaults on the Science

Unfortunately, political interference and lack of funding for ESA implementation have reduced the law’s effectiveness. In recent years several species, such as the right whale and the sage grouse, paid the price when science was manipulated or suppressed.

While there was some initial progress under the Obama administration, things took a turn for the worse when numerous members of Congress put science aside and launched attacks on specific species, such as the gray wolf. These legislative battles have ignored the scientific determination of species’ statuses, turning conservation and restoration measures into political debacles.

Despite the opposition of 1,293 scientists with expertise in biological systems, along with UCS and peer institutions, Congress set a dangerous precedent earlier in 2011 by legislatively delisting gray wolves in the Northern Rockies. The delisting was the first such action by Congress in the nearly 40 years since the Endangered Species Act was enacted. Under the guise of job protection, legislators pushed by special interests also have proposed bills that would prevent species like the dunes sagebrush lizard and the lesser prairie chicken from ever getting listed, no matter what their status.

In addition to these attempts to circumvent the law, attacks have recently been aimed at critical parts of the Endangered Species Act itself. Targeted budget proposals also aim to remove critical funding for the Fish and Wildlife Service to prevent that agency from doing its job.

Candidate Species

As of July 2011, there were 265 candidate species waiting for the government to decide whether they were endangered or threatened. Even before recent attacks, candidate species have often waited for years while they continue to face man-made hazards. For example, the Oregon spotted frog (pictured in our 2011 Scientific Integrity Calendar), has been on the candidate list for more than 15 years, despite disappearing from over 90 percent of its former range.

Careful consideration of the science is necessary for good listing decisions. If science is going to drive listing decisions, Department of the Interior and Department of Commerce officials must have sufficient resources to evaluate these candidate species efficiently.

Non-domestic Species

The Endangered Species Act also protects species outside the United States by preventing their import and sale. The U.S. plays a critical role in conserving species like the hairy nosed wombat and helmeted hornbill.

Helmeted Hornbill
Photo by Doug Janson

By listing the helmeted hornbill as an endangered species, the government helps thwart the trade of the the horny structure on the bird’s head, known as its casque. The casque is considered by some to be as valuable as ivory and has added the threat of hunting to the loss of habitat this Southeastern Asian bird already faces.

The northern hairy nosed wombat is one of the rarest animals in the world, confined to less than 100 square kilometers in Queensland, Australia. By including this animal on the its endangered species list, the U.S. helps prevent activities that could lead to further decline, such as illegal smuggling for the pet industry or other purposes.

Resources Still Needed

Effective funding is critical for the government to carry out the laws it has been charged with enforcing. Even before recent attacks on the ESA, government personnel simply have not had the resources to protect biodiversity and all of the benefits it brings to the American public. Though we face a need for fiscal responsibility, we must remember not to throw all our progress out the window.

We Need Your Support
to Make Change Happen

We can ensure that decisions about our health, safety, and environment are based on the best available science—but not without you. Your generous support helps develop science-based solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.