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Fifty years into the Endangered Species Act, how is it working?

A bald eagle prepares for flight. The Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming has won an unprecedented permit to hunt two bald eagles for use in religious ceremonies.
Wilfredo Lee
The bald eagle is one of the few species that has been delisted from the Endangered Species Act because of population recovery.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a bedrock environmental law in the United States with far reaching impacts. Today, there are more than 1,300 species listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA. It’s been credited with saving hundreds of species from extinction and is broadly popular, but still remains controversial at times.

Wyoming Public Radio’s Will Walkey talked with University of Wyoming law professor Temple Stoellinger to reflect on the past, present and future of the ESA.

Editors Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. 

Will Walkey: Let's start with just the basics here. Why was the Endangered Species Act first created? And do you think that the act is still functioning as intended currently?

Temple Stoellinger: That's a great question. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was actually kind of a final iteration after a couple of additional attempts by Congress, and it was really an attempt to create a federal framework for conservation of endangered species. Its real purpose is to keep species from being extinct.

If you look at the track record of conservation of species, I think the Endangered Species Act is working as Congress intended. Obviously, there's some things that not everybody's happy with. The recovery track record of species listed under the act hasn't been great. But if you look, overall, at the conservation record of the species in terms of preventing extinction, the act’s been really successful. And I think also there's been some studies done that just show the overall support for the Endangered Species Act across the American public [is] still relatively high.

WW: What changes do you think need to be made so that the Endangered Species Act can continue to be successful?

TS: For me, one of the key things is continuing opportunities for collaboration. So collaboration with state governments, tribal governments, with landowners [and] with conservation groups. I think it's really hard to think about the implementation of such a major act like the Endangered Species Act continuing to be successful without thinking about what those partnerships look like moving forward and ensuring successful conservation. So I think that's a big piece of it.

I also think funding to both the Fish Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service is going to be increasingly important moving forward. Giving them the resources they need to not only to continue to conserve species, but also [to] think about actions that are needed to recover species and remove them from the Endangered Species Act.

I think also we've done a lot of work on thinking about how to sort of be reactionary when conserving species. So I think there is an opportunity to look at some of the tools under the Endangered Species Act to be a bit more flexible and maybe a bit more proactive moving forward. So how can we kind of get ahead of, again, the need to sort of quickly and immediately worry about species that are approaching that threshold of needing federal help and on the verge of extinction?

WW: Several conservation groups have used this 50th anniversary as an opportunity to say, “50 years in, the Endangered Species Act is under attack.” There are several federal efforts, including from some politicians in the state of Wyoming, to delist certain species. And folks say that that is kind of going at the integrity of the ESA a little bit. Do you agree with that characterization? And what is your take on some of the recent efforts to delist, for example, the grizzly bear?

TS: I don't think I agree with that characterization. I mean, there's always been litigation on individual species – delisting or listing efforts. Speaking specifically maybe about the grizzly bear, I think if we look at the intent of the act, we have to see that the intent was to conserve species that needed that federal help, but then also to delist once we've hit that recovery goal. I think we can quibble about what the actual number is for recovery. But I think we can also see that at some point we've hit [the] recovery of grizzly bears. And so we need to think about what long term management looks like and we need to have mechanisms to delist species once we've recovered in order to maintain support for the act and to let it really function as it was intended.

WW: Once the Endangered Species Act has been implemented with some certain large carnivores and they've been delisted, some states have had some pretty aggressive management plans, which has really concerned people. And now there's efforts to relist wolves. What do you think about the idea that states maybe can't be trusted with the management of certain carnivores that are extremely controversial locally?

TS: I think that that's a good question, Will, and obviously carnivores are a tricky subject with regards to species conservation, because there is, particularly at the local level, concern about depredation to livestock and safety.

[I’m] working on a paper right now that actually talks about that pendulum swing after federal management of a species. Like [with] wolves in particular you could predict to see pretty aggressive state management policy, particularly of a carnivore or predator. So I don't think that was unexpected.

And again, you have to look at the functioning of the Endangered Species Act, which is to delist once you hit that recovery point. Also, I think you have to think about the safety net that the Endangered Species Act provides in that if the species needs to be relisted, the Endangered Species Act serves that safety net for relisting. So if states go too far, and [have] aggressive management of wolves, for example, then they could be relisted.

WW: I want to ask a little bit about the urban-rural divide when it comes to the Endangered Species Act. How do we bridge the gap between folks who live in urban areas who like to visit, [for example], Yellowstone National Park and see thriving wildlife populations, and then those rural communities that are actually sort of living with these species on a more daily basis.

TS: I think that's a real issue. And you're really getting at kind of the heart [of] a lot of conflict with the Endangered Species Act with that question. It's been a problem from the start of the Endangered Species Act.

I think there's been some creative policies created under the umbrella of the Endangered Species Act, which kind of get to this issue of sort of the imbalance of those who want species conserved versus those who are dealing with the realities of a restricted federal act. So we see things like 4(d) rules, which apply to threatened species [and] allow for flexibility of management of a species, which gives some relief to landowners. We see things like conservation agreements with assurances, which, again, are intended to provide some relief and management flexibility for landowners. And the same with Safe Harbor Agreements.

As we move forward and think about the Endangered Species Act and its 50th anniversary, I think there's a lot of room to think more broadly about creative strategies that provide some incentive to landowners who are dealing with the impacts of Endangered Species Act conservation. And they're really conserving the public's wildlife in that sense and kind of bearing the brunt of those impacts. And to think about some more creative and flexible management tools that fit under the authority of the Act that give us that space to incentivize landowners and to acknowledge the cost that they bear and find ways to maybe flip the narrative a bit and to see species conservation maybe as an asset. And not just a negative all the time.

WW: Climate change and development in general are going to continue threatening biodiversity throughout the world, and certainly in the United States as well. So I think the Endangered Species Act is going to continue to be really important in terms of how the federal government manages the United States species that we all love. What do you see the next 50 years looking like when it comes to the Endangered Species Act and do you think it can continue to function as it was originally intended?

TS: That's a great question. I think climate change certainly poses a challenge. And I would say, even despite the strength of the Endangered Species Act – really one of the strongest species conservation statutes in the world – we still see biodiversity declines and species declines in the United States. And so moving forward, I think we'll continue to see the importance of the Endangered Species Act and of conserving those species that need that extra lift and that federal support. But we're going to have to adapt as a result of climate change.

And I think that maybe in particular is going to be important when we think about critical habitat and making sure that we have enough space and enough habitat protected as a species will need to kind of change the landscape that they're utilizing now to address the impacts of climate change. So I think we're all just going to need a little bit of patience and flexibility in the next 50 years as we truly understand what those impacts of climate change are going to be on landscapes and on species.

Will Walkey is a contributing journalist and former reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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