Endangered Species Act Turns 40 Facing Environmental And Political Dangers

The red wolf, a North American canid listed as endangered under the ESA. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
The red wolf, a North American canid listed as endangered under the ESA. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Forty years ago on December 28, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act (ESA), saying, “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed … I congratulate the 93rd Congress for taking this important step toward protecting a heritage which we hold in trust to countless future generations of our fellow citizens.”

Since then the ESA has been credited with saving a number of species from the brink of extinction, including the bald eagle, the American alligator, the grizzly bear and the prairie dog. The act has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the more than 2,140 species it currently protects.

The ESA became law during the first waves of the modern environmental movement in America. Rachel Carson’s influential book Silent Spring had been published 11 years earlier. The Santa Barbara oil spill happened in 1969. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed the Clean Air Act in 1970. At the time of it’s signing, the ESA was meant to protect against the rapid development and pollution that was depleting habitats. Since then another major factor has come into play, one that exacerbates these already prominent issues as well as adding new elements of its own: climate change.

“You’ve got a huge problem with sea level rise and climate change,” Dave Owen, associate professor at the University of Maine’s School of Law, told Outside Magazine earlier this year regarding endangered species. “If you were naive about political realities, you’d see the ESA as a mechanism for responding to climate change. But the agencies [that are empowered to enforce the ESA] are in a very tough spot because if they were to try to respond to sea level rise, they would have to try to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.”


Owen said that rising sea levels reduce and fragment habitats of certain endangered species. He also noted that seal level rise will impact inland deltas that play a big role in coastal freshwater habitats. He said proponents of the Act have spent the last 40 years trying to prevent it from getting weakened, which hasn’t left much time for improvement — After 40 years the debate over the merits and effectiveness of the Act is as alive as ever.

“There are a lot of pundits out there who will tell you that it has either been a disaster or a huge success,” Peter Alagona, a professor of environmental history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, told Smithsonian magazine. “The truth is that it has really been a mixed bag to date, and ‘to date’ is a really short time. For species that took centuries to decline, 40 years is probably not enough time to recover.”

To mark the 40th anniversary of the landmark legislation, the Wall Street Journal published a heavily critical editorial, saying, “The law has endangered the economic health of many communities — while creating a cottage industry of litigation that does more to enrich environmental activist groups than benefit the environment. How did things get so turned around? Blame the bureaucrats of the Endangered Species Act. They have administered the law poorly and flouted provisions designed to promote good science and good sense.”

Recently some in Congress have made efforts to reform the legislation more to their liking. In November, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky) released a statement following the introduction of the Endangered Species Management Self-Determination Act.

“By removing the red tape, state governments will be better equipped to manage, regulate, develop and implement recovery plans for their critical habitats. This bill will better protect endangered species by allowing a more tailored response as implemented by the states,” Sen. Paul said. “The Endangered Species Management Self-Determination Act ensures that local needs will be considered in the regulation process and places the decision-making into the hands of the states by allowing them to choose whether regulation occurs on the state or federal level.”


According to The Hill, the Endangered Species Management Self-Determination Act, “would allow states to opt-out of ESA regulations and would require a congressional resolution to add a new endangered species.”

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), a lead author of the original ESA, wrote an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press this week arguing against measures Republicans in Congress like Paul are taking to weaken the law. In it he says that, “partisan bickering and political agendas threaten to return us to the times when we were destroying our great natural treasures:”

“From efforts to defund the agencies that oversee its implementation, to the forces that work to find and exploit loopholes in the law to put industry profits ahead of our planet, defending the ESA will require a diligence the likes of which we have not witnessed before.”

The ESA has been through a lot since its signing in 1973 when Nixon praised Congress for coming together to protect important heritages for future generations. 40 years later climate change poses new threats while the law is in need of the kind of political cooperation that can both revive and reform it to best protect against the challenges of the next 40 years.