The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed under President Richard Nixon in 1973. It’s enforced by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and they describe it as “key legislation for both domestic and international conservation. The act aims to provide a framework to conserve and protect endangered and threatened species and their habitats.”
This is an adequate description but it fails to capture what a singular piece of legislation the ESA is, and the huge impact it’s had on protecting animals and preserving vital natural habitats in the U.S. The original Endangered Species Preservation Act was created in 1966. A new more comprehensive version was passed as the Endangered Species Conservation Act three years later, partly due to pressure from the Save the Whales movement. The new law also called for international cooperation to save species in danger of extinction worldwide.
In 1973 the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was created. That same year President Nixon called on Congress to strengthen the U.S.’s protection for endangered species and the ESA was passed. The ESA has strong legal protections for endangered and threatened species, including invertebrates and plants, and their habitats, and provides funds to federal agencies and states for conservation. Basically the ESA made it so that protecting endangered species takes legal precedence over almost any other concern of the government.
An early challenge to the ESA involving the construction of the Tellico Dam in Tennessee, illustrates both the power of the law and the strength of the opposition to it. In 1978, when construction of the dam was 11 years underway and about $100 million in taxpayer funds had been spent on the project, it was halted by the Supreme Court for violating the ESA. If completed the Tellico Dam would have destroyed the habitat of the snail darter fish. The ruling of the Court noted how clear the ESA was on the protection of the habitat of the endangered animal. Congress, which had approved the project and appropriated the funds, responded by creating a special committee that could exempt certain species from the ESA, but the committee chose not to exempt the snail darter fish. The Congressional delegation for Tennessee then included a rider in an unrelated bill exempting the Tellico Dam project from the ESA. It passed and the Tellico Dam was completed destroying the habitat of the snail darter fish. Fortunately, some of the fish were found elsewhere and they did not go extinct as a result of the dam.
Similar challenges to the ESA have come up frequently since it’s passage when habitat protection for individual animals interferes with other interests. And usually the ESA prevails. A couple of the most notable animals that the ESA and CITES have been credited with saving include bald eagles and humpback whales, but they also protect hundreds of other species and their habitats and the ecosystems that they are a part of. The ESA is generally considered to be the ultimate success story in terms of conservation legislation, and it’s very unlikely to be replicated any time soon.
Now the ESA is facing some of the most serious threats in its 45year history. Earlier this week on July 17 a bill was introduced in the Senate that would make changes to the law itself, including giving states more power in how to protect species and changing how the FSA uses scientific findings to make decisions. On July 19 the Trump administration proposed several changes to the rules regarding how the law is enforced. These changes would allow the FSA to consider economic interests when deciding how to protect animals, end the requirement for the FSA to consult with scientists before approving permits for resource extraction, and most likely weaken the protections for animals that are threatened but not endangered.
These may not seem like major catastrophic adjustments but any erosion of the ESA would be extremely hard to correct in the current polarized political climate and could have permanent negative consequences. Ultimately, these changes are all about prioritizing development over habitat protection. One of the signature achievements of the ESA and CITES was preventing and severely limiting the hunting of endangered species, but killing animals by destroying their habitat is just as efficient and permanent as hunting them into extinction. Many of the hundreds of plants and animals on the endangered and threatened species lists have already had their habitat drastically reduced by development and exist only in small areas. If the ESA is weakened and habitats are destroyed, species will go extinct. And once a species is gone it won’t matter who the president is or what party is in power, no new law or rule change will bring it back.