Why do people consider the Endangered Species Act to be the country’s most important environmental law when it only protects a few hundred plant and animal species?
– Mark McGrath, Greenwich, CT
According to the latest tally by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), 745 plant and 523 animal species are listed as threatened or endangered in the United States. While these flora and fauna have benefited from Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections, environmental advocates point to the law’s far-reaching habitat protection provisions as key to preserving the nation’s overall environmental quality.
When a plant or animal is listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA, federal officials must also designate critical habitat “essential to the conservation of the species.” Today it is estimated that some 100 million acres of both private and public land across the U.S. are protected by the ESA from new development and resource extraction (mining, oil drilling) because they harbor one or more rare species.
Not everyone is happy with these provisions. Since the ESA became law in 1973, property owners have protested that restrictions on what they can do on their own private lands are unconstitutional. With some success, they have taken their grievances to court repeatedly, clogging the judicial system with appeal after appeal. Also, due to all these legal skirmishes, officials at the USFWS, which administers the law, complain of having to devote so many hours and resources to legal battles instead of field work.
Sympathetic to these legalistic concerns, the Bush administration has been pushing for the de-listing of some species whose numbers have improved in recent years–including bald eagles, gray wolves and grizzly bears. But critics say that the White House is more concerned with furthering its political agenda than in the welfare of the nation’s endangered species.
Meanwhile, House Resources Committee Chair Richard Pombo, a California Republican, has pushed a bill through the House that proposes to limit federal powers under the ESA. One controversial change the bill calls for is removal of many critical habitat designations. Another would require the government to compensate property owners for the costs of complying with regulations.
Recently, some 80 organizations, from the Sierra Club to Republicans for Environmental Protection, signed a letter to Congress urging them to leave the ESA intact. “Of the 1,800 plants and animals under the Act’s protection,” the letter states, “only nine have been declared extinct, and more than two-thirds of protected species…are moving toward recovery with stable and improving populations.”
Congress first passed the ESA due to public outcry over species loss “as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation,” in the words of the ESA itself. In signing the bill, then-president Richard Nixon said that the “legislation provides the federal government with the needed authority to protect an irreplaceable part of our national heritage–threatened wildlife.”
CONTACTS: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Program, www.fws.gov/endangered; Endangered Species Coalition, www.stopextinction.org.
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