Commentary: Is the Endangered Species Act facing extinction?

Before we overhaul the Endangered Species Act, we should better understand what it means to deliberately allow a species to go extinct.

James Poulson/Daily Sitka Sentinel/AP/File
A humpback whale dives near Starrigavan estuary in Sitka, Alaska, in 2012.

Republicans in Washington are rolling back environmental regulations for the sake of improving business. Similar actions, like those to “modernize” the Endangered Species Act, are likewise couched in terms of improving the business climate in the United States. What these efforts seem to miss is that Earth’s life-support system, including all of the species – plants and animals – that make up the ecosystems in which we live, provides us food, medicine, clean water, clean air and shelter. We should think of them as gifts of life rather than impediments to our lifestyle.

In the US, the Endangered Species Act (ESA), signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973, is our nation’s most powerful legislation to protect life on Earth. The Act reflects societies’ rightful intention to share the planet with the millions of other nonhuman species. We rely on this biodiversity of species, underscoring the importance of the ESA for human wellbeing.

But Washington today is markedly anti-regulation, and now the ESA is in its sights.

Several recent proposals and actions have surfaced with ways to “strengthen" and "modernize” the management of the ESA. In the Senate, John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming and the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works have led the way. Late last month, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing in its first effort to limit the Endangered Species Act.

Opponents argue that the ESA is ineffective in recovering endangered species – a legitimate criticism given that recovery plans are severely underfunded. It is remarkable that extinction has been avoided for 99 percent of listed species. It turns out, however, that recovering species from the brink of extinction is a lot harder (and more expensive) than we thought.

Many of the suggested changes to the ESA will mean deliberate extinction. Examples include: Imposing a cap on how many species can be protected or requiring that one species be removed from the list every time another is added; limiting applications for protections to one species at a time; and giving states more discretion in deciding what to protect. These proposed changes will result in limiting or invalidating the ESA.

As a society it is our prerogative to support legislative changes that resonate with our value system. While the ESA has been criticized for limiting economic development, we have not fully considered the societal repercussions of deliberately allowing extinction and altering the land.

Biodiversity is important to us and our planet. Like art, biological diversity enriches life on Earth and provides enduring benefits for future generations. Deliberate extinction is an irreversible choice and it has long-term impacts on us, our children, our grandchildren and all future generations. It makes us ask: Which pieces of art does society value and save? Which national parks do we protect? Which species do we save?

We (scientists and society) now have an opportunity to develop a strategy to improve the ESA. But we need to work together to provide a scientific and societal framework that will keep intact, even strengthen, the essence of the ESA.

When President Nixon challenged Congress to draft the ESA, he spoke of an “environmental awakening” and a “revolution in values” in our commitment to conservation, arguing that protection of wildlife should be a bipartisan issue. It is now incumbent on society to articulate a transparent approach to deciding which species to protect and which to let go. For those species that we deem worthy of protection, we must promote their recovery and be willing to pay for it. For the losing species, we need to prepare for the consequences of their disappearance from Earth.

Leah Gerber is a professor and Founding Director of the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes at Arizona State University.

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