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Why did the Endangered Species Act first pass, and how is it doing?

Richard Nixon was an avid environmentalist and pushed to protect endangered and threatened species across the U.S.
Courtesy of the Richard Nixon Foundation
Richard Nixon was an avid environmentalist and pushed to protect endangered and threatened species across the U.S.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) passed about 50 years ago in 1973. It provides a framework for protecting endangered or threatened plants and animals from extinction and allowing those populations to recover.

Wyoming Public Radio’s Kamila Kudelska talked with reporter Will Walkey about the past, present and future of the ESA, how it affects Wyoming and some of the controversies surrounding the law.

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

Kamila Kudelska: Can you take us back to 1973? Why was there a push for the Endangered Species Act? And what was the goal of the law back then?

Will Walkey: The Endangered Species Act came in response to growing awareness of environmental issues that came about in the 1960s. Americans were becoming increasingly concerned about animals and plants around the country going extinct because of threats from industry, hunting, deforestation [and other] things like that.

The near eradication of bison from the continent in the late 1800s and early 1900s [was] a huge wake up call for this. And we realized, yes, humans actually can wipe out a species from the planet. And in the mid-20th century, extinction rates were up. Another animal that was probably a wake up call for Americans – and got a lot more Americans on board with conservation efforts – was the bald eagle. In the early 60s, it was estimated that there were just 500 breeding pairs remaining in the lower 48. Today, there are hundreds of thousands. So it was really low back then.

At that point, the main groups preserving animals were maybe zoos [and] other private nonprofit organizations. There were a few early iterations of other species protection acts, but it wasn't until the late 60s and early 70s that there was a real nationwide push that the government should get involved in a major way.

One of the leaders in this was President Richard Nixon. That's a name that kind of surprised me and might surprise other people. He was actually a huge environmentalist. Here he is talking about the importance of passing laws like the Endangered Species Act. This was in 1972.

President Richard Nixon: Each of us all across this great land has a stake in maintaining and improving environmental quality. Clean air and clean water. The wise use of our land. The protection of wildlife and natural beauty. Parks for all to enjoy. These are part of the birthright of every American. To guarantee that birthright, we must act and act decisively. It is literally now or never. [Richard Nixon Foundation, 2/8/1972]

WW: So 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act. It was nearly unanimous. And then Nixon signed it. It was broadly popular and still is – but of course has some controversies attached to it.

KK: So before we get to those controversies, what does the Endangered Species Act do and what is its record?

WW: So what does the Endangered Species Act do? It lets the federal government list a particular animal or plant as either “threatened” or “endangered.” That listing decision is usually controversial or much-discussed, especially in the West. But once something does become listed, federal agencies can designate a critical habitat zone. What that does is it limits things like energy development in the area. The feds then take control of management from states and then it becomes a national thing where the species is listed online as an “endangered” or “threatened” species. Then, the feds have a lot of power. The ultimate goal there is preventing extinction and allowing the species to recover.

In many ways, the ESA has been successful in 50 years. Ninety-nine percent of the species that have been listed haven't gone extinct. And there are more than 1,300 species now listed, including some really charismatic animals like the grizzly bear or the gray wolf. The spotted owl [and] the Florida panther – those are some other examples of well-known species on the list. But it also protects lesser known things like fish, bugs, bats [and] reptiles. Animals that might not have those huge Facebook pages or online presence. But they still play a part in ecosystems. They're still really important. And the ESA doesn't discriminate based on how well-known a species is.

KK: Although it's been doing a good job of keeping species from going extinct, what are some issues with the ESA?

WW: Yeah, [it’s] really important to note some of the issues and it does get back to the goals of the ESA. When it was signed, it wasn't just about preventing extinction. It's also supposed to allow animals to recover to the point where they are then delisted. Where we say, “Yeah, you're fine. You're now back to what things were like before you were threatened or endangered.”

[It] turns out, that doesn't really happen very often. In fact, in the history of the ESA, only about 54 species have ever been delisted. Only 56 have been downgraded from the endangered level to the lesser “threatened” level. So, a lot of species are added to the list and then they just stay there.

And that can be frustrating – not just for environmental groups who want to see [species] recover – but also for states like Wyoming. They want to see control come back to the state level, and the future of the ESA is really going to be about recovery.

Another thing to mention is that the ESA is just a really complicated law. How the law works depends on the species, and there are lawsuits – there are often petitions – associated with each plant and each animal. This can bog down the Fish and Wildlife Service.

I talked with Temple Stoellinger – she’s a law professor with the University of Wyoming – about some of the needs for more reform within the law.

Temple Stoellinger: Funding to both the Fish and 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 think about actions that are needed to recover species and remove them from the Endangered Species Act.

I think also [that] 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. 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 [are] on the verge of extinction?

KK: How do Wyoming politicians feel about the Endangered Species Act? Do they agree that changes need to be made?

WW: Wyoming leaders, they're some of the most vocal – I don't want to say opponents – but maybe critics of the ESA. They have been like this over the past few decades. A lot of that comes down to management of hot button carnivores like grizzly bears and wolves. But also things like sage-grouse and other species that inhabit Wyoming.

It should be noted that western states are particularly impacted by the ESA. And that's because so many species live here. We have a lot of intact ecosystems, a lot of wildlife corridors and a lot of open spaces. We also have a lot of federal land where the species live. So a lot of people here probably feel like species policies and decisions maybe target Western states. And maybe a lot of people say [that] they're made by East Coast bureaucrats who don't really understand the actual impacts of something like a grizzly bear on the ground.

Here's Governor Mark Gordon testifying before Congress a few years ago. He says the ESA is well-intentioned but definitely needs changes.

Governor Mark Gordon: Unfortunately, Wyoming also has a long history of being hamstrung with paying for species management yet being obliged to defer the federal government on decisions about that management. This is particularly vexing when species have fully recovered yet remain listed because of legal horseplay and judicial jousting. Rather than focusing on actual results, courts are asked to speculate on what ifs that lead to a vicious cycle.

WW: Other Wyoming politicians have also questioned the Endangered Species Act recently, and especially whether or not certain animals should be listed.

It's becoming more and more divisive among party lines. A lot of Republicans say the ESA is constricting the state's rights. And then some Democrats say these sorts of narratives threaten the integrity of this environmental law. This is really different from when the ESA passed 50 years ago. Again, it was almost unanimous back then. And I am speculating here, but I don't think something like the ESA could pass today.

Now, it feels like how the ESA works is just subject to that back and forth nature of whatever color the administration is a part of. The Trump administration looked to weaken ESA protections and delist species, and now the Biden administration wants to restore those protections. So when the ESA was passed, it really wasn't supposed to be this way. The law says we should be making decisions based on science for the best interest of the animal or plant. And nowadays, it feels like business and politics and money is inevitably getting involved when it probably shouldn't be.

And that's especially true when we're talking about what the word “recovery” actually means. Again, recovery is going to be so important in the next 50 years of the ESA, and the word “recovery” means something different for each person.

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.
Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. She has won a regional Murrow award for her reporting on mental health and firearm owners. During her time leading the Wyoming Public Media newsroom, reporters have won multiple PMJA, Murrow and Top of the Rockies Excellence in Journalism Awards. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.
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