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A bedrock environmental law in the U.S. turns 50

Jim Peaco
Yellowstone National park

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, one of the strongest conservation laws in the world. It continues to have far-reaching impacts, especially in the Mountain West.

President Richard Nixon signed the law in 1973 to protect critically impaired wildlife from extinction. At the time, he called the rich array of animal life in the U.S. a “priceless” and vital part of American heritage.

Today, there are more than 1,300 species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s credited with saving 99 percent of listed species from extinction, and remains broadly popular among the public.

“If you look overall at the conservation record of the species in terms of preventing extinction, the act’s been really successful,” said University of Wyoming law professor Temple Stoellinger. “I think the Endangered Species Act is working as Congress intended.”

Yet Stoellinger said improvements to the act are possible, especially when it comes to wildlife recovery. Just 54 species in the Endangered Species Act’s history have been delisted, and another 56 have been downgraded from threatened to endangered.

“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,” Stoellinger said.

Stoellinger said the Endangered Species Act could be strengthened by more funding for environmental agencies, more collaboration with local governments and landowners and more protection of critical habitats. She also argues that the federal government needs to actually de-list species quickly – including controversial carnivores like the grizzly bear – when science calls for it.

The Department of the Interior recently announced $62.5 million in funding for species recovery efforts. May 19 also marks Endangered Species Day, which is intended to raise awareness about threatened wildlife and the laws that protect them.

Despite the act’s overall popularity, how it is – or isn't – applied to individual species can be hugely controversial. That's especially true in the Mountain West, where fierce debates over the listing of grizzly bears, wolves, and many other species – like the northern long-eared bat – continue to play out.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is currently a 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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