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Can the Endangered Species Act Be Counted On? Here’s What Needs to Happen to Save Wildlife

By: Debra Firmani

If you’re worried about the future of wildlife and the places they call home, you’re not alone. Destructive activities contribute to a rate of extinction that is likely now 1,000 times the rate before the rapid expansion of the human population.

Nine out of 10 Americans support the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as a means to provide crucial protection for species at risk of extinction, yet the ESA is under attack by those who fail to understand the natural world and its significance to wildlife and our own wellbeing.

Can we count on the ESA to save wildlife, or are other means needed?

Consider the current political terrain. More than 200 bills intended to undermine the ESA were introduced in Congress in 2016, and the trend continues. Under the influence of energy industry lobbyists, developers and others, politicians are attempting to rewrite the facts about the ESA. Their false narrative ignores the ESA’s measurable successes.

Scientists estimate the ESA has already saved at least 227 species from becoming extinct, and 99 percent of listed species have averted becoming extinct. Critics of the ESA prefer to focus on a misleading angle, suggesting it is a failure because only a small percentage of listed species have recovered enough to be removed from the list.

In truth, the vast majority of protected species – about 90 percent – are recovering at the rate scientists projected for them. In other words, success is in progress and on track.

For example, recovery plans for many bird species estimate that it may take more than 60 years to achieve full recovery, yet the average protected bird species has only been on the list for 36 years. A 2016 study of the ESA found that populations of 85 percent of listed bird species have stabilized or increased. To say the ESA is not successful is like heading on a road trip from Connecticut to California and giving up in Ohio because you can’t yet see the Pacific Ocean. For most species, full recovery will be a marathon, not a sprint, and their recovery should not be thrown off track by political shifts.

The key to recovery for most imperiled species and the survival of all is the protection of vital habitat. Much of this land is privately owned, so there’s an enormous potential for individuals to make a meaningful difference for wildlife. Just as ESA protection of one species often benefits countless other species, permanent protection of private lands benefits not only the most easily observed wildlife but also the full community of species who call the habitat home.

Wolves, grizzly bears, mountain lions and other far-ranging species need vast landscapes to flourish. By protecting private lands that connect larger, publicly held lands, these species can move about and maintain healthy populations, while helping to keep ecosystems in balance.

Most imperiled bird species need woodlands, grasslands or prairies that are not fragmented by roads and development. They need safe havens along their migratory routes. Here, too, private land conservation can ensure wildlife species will forever have what they need to survive and flourish.

Don’t let critics’ sound bites cause you to doubt the ESA’s importance or success. We must judge the ESA’s effectiveness by whether it is helping reverse the trend toward extinction for the species it protects. By that logical measure, the ESA is achieving crucial and meaningful progress. Can it be refined to achieve greater progress for more species? Can enforcement be strengthened? Can we find ways to work more effectively with various stakeholders? These and other means of strengthening the ESA must be pursued. But given the magnitude of current threats to wildlife, the ESA alone is not enough.

It’s Up To Us

We’re facing both a global extinction crisis and a political crisis. Though the public’s support for wildlife is strong, political support is careening off track, due to pressures from special interests. We cannot rely solely upon the ESA to protect disappearing species. To safeguard the web of life on which we all depend, we must also pursue the tangible and practical solution to permanently protecting as much crucial habitat as possible.

The Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust exists to empower landowners to protect their land as permanent safe havens for wildlife. With political realities unfolding, taking personal action to save wildlife could not be more urgent. All who care about wildlife, whether landowners or not, can, and must, help map out a promising future for wildlife.


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