The Endangered Species Act
On December 28th, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed one of the most influential environmental laws in American history; the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Since the release of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, activists had warned that the unchecked growth of industry threatens human health and destroys animal life. The signing of the ESA was a pivotal moment in the movement that fought for clean air, water, and living for everything on Earth.
Early governmental action primarily focused on commonly hunted animals. The extinction of the passenger pigeon in 1914, whose populations were once described as “flocks that darkened the heavens,” remains a stark example of the rippling effects of human development.
Throughout the 1960s, multiple acts attempted to protect endangered wildlife, but the ESA provided the power for agencies to truly protect these species. When a species is listed as endangered, the secretary of the interior must develop a recovery plan for it, and the group is usually designated a “critical habitat.” Today the ESA protects 1600 species in the United States and has a 99% effectiveness rate, saving an estimated 227 species from extinction since 1973.
One such species saved by these efforts was the bald eagle. Starting in the 1940s, the infamous synthetic insecticide, DDT, was used widely but had devastating consequences to ecosystems. The fish eaten by bald eagles became contaminated by the chemical, and the eggshells of bald eagles became increasingly thin. In 1963 a devastating statistic shook the nation: there were only 417 pairs of the national symbol of freedom left. In large part due to the activism after Silent Spring, the Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT in 1972, a first step in the recovery of this great bird. Through the efforts of captive breeding programs, reintroduction efforts, and habitat protection, the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list in 2007. Today there are over 100,000 bald eagles.
Search the phrase “wildlife protection,” and you will most likely see the spotted face of a giant panda peeking out from bamboo. The iconic “face of conservation” was highly endangered in the 1990s due to poaching and deforestation. Farmland expansion forced pandas into smaller habitats and led to food shortages of their bamboo diet. Today, there are more than 67 panda reserves across China, and the species has been moved from the endangered list to the threatened list. The male panda PanPan, who fathered or grandfathered over 130 pandas, is also credited with some of the success of the increase in the panda species. Approximately 25% of pandas in captivity today are his descendants.
Some endangered animals, such as freshwater fish, are often overlooked during conservation efforts, leaving the survival of species in the hands of groups of passionate hobbyists. Freshwater fish are the most threatened vertebrate group, but half of freshwater fish aren’t formally assessed by conservation organizations. The CARES Fish Prevention program encourages hobbyist aquarists and fish breeders to breed and exchange endangered fish in the hopes of reintroducing them to the wild. The CARES program has saved 30 species deemed extinct in the wild that aren’t even on the IUCN list of threatened species.
Some animals, such as the sea otter, have not yet been removed from the endangered species list, but conservation efforts are helping them make a comeback. Visit a local zoo and you may see their furry bodies swimming around with toys. What might not be immediately apparent is that sea otters are a keystone species, and help maintain the balance of coastal ecosystems around the North and East Pacific Ocean. Otters feed on clams and sea urchins that would otherwise destroy crucial kelp forests. Kelp forests provide a habitat for thousands of aquatic species, help absorb carbon dioxide and protect local coastlines against storms and sea-level rise. After the sea otter was nearly hunted to extinction, urchin populations grew out of control and wrecked kelp forests. The California sea otter has been protected under the ESA since 1977, due to habitat loss and their vulnerability to oil spills. While conservation efforts and organizations have been crucial in the efforts to save these species, the parasite Toxoplasmosis gondii has been detrimental to sea otter populations. Conservation programs have tried to ensure designated habitats for the otters, but it’s impossible to communicate this to an animal, and many otters return to their original habitats. Our efforts to save this crucial species must continue, and conservationists work hard daily to protect their populations.
The blue whale has always been a legend to animal lovers, and most find it hard to imagine that anything could ever harm these majestic creatures. However, in the 1900s, the largest animal ever known to exist was hunted to the brink of extinction by whalers for oil and fat. Modern threats to these whales include habitat loss, toxins, and ship strikes. Today the blue whale is protected by the International Whaling Commission, which helps respond to entangled or injured whales and attempts to reduce ocean noise and vessel strikes. While the blue whale is still endangered, their population is increasing.
While the endeavors of hardworking individuals and organizations are invaluable to conservation efforts, animals and ecosystems are still being attacked at an unprecedented rate. A report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), found that one million plant and animal species are currently threatened by extinction within decades. This unprecedented rate of natural decline is referred to by many scientists as the sixth mass extinction.
Despite this evidence, the ESA has endured an onslaught of attacks in recent years. Directives from the Trump administration in 2019 curtailed protection of threatened species and disconsidered climate change when looking at ways species could be threatened in the future. While the Biden Administration has promised to review these changes, the ESA still remains under attack, potentially undermining the crucial progress made with these success stories.
The UN report ranked five direct foeces affecting biodiversity and natural loss: changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species. Implementing long-term changes is key to saving these animals before they become endangered. You can start helping to save endangered species today by checking out our Fanimal article here.
Sources: Audubon.org, Ballotpedia, Biologicaldiversity.org, Earthjustice.org, Earthoptimism.si.edu, Encyclopedia.com, Fish and Wildlife service (US), History.com, La Times, Marine Mammal Commission (US), National History Museum (UK),