The Endangered Species Act is threatened. Or at least facing significant reform. Momentum in Congress and in western states is building to make changes to the landmark regulation that protects threatened animal and plant species and their habitats.
On a warm, sunny day, a large group of people surround a truck wearing rubber boots and sunglasses. As the driver pops open the trunk, cameras snap to capture the hopping, palm-sized amphibians in clear boxes. Doug Keinath, the Recovery Coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, announced to a cheering group, “Alright, our toads are here!”
These are Wyoming Toads— one of the state’s twelve endangered species. Keinath led a group at the Mortenson Lake National Wildlife Refuge to re-introduce around 250 toads back into the wild. This was one of five sites around Laramie where scientists released a total of 853 toads.
Down at the lake shore, Sharon Taylor knelt next to her two daughters. She picked up a brown, warted toad in between her thumb and finger as it squeaked.
Taylor did her Ph.D. on the Wyoming Toad’s decline. She said this is the last spot wild Wyoming Toads were seen in 1985 — then, only sixteen individuals were found. Her 11-year old daughter Christina released a toad into the lake — without stopping the toad raced straight toward the water’s center.
Christina exclaimed, “Look at him swimming! Aww, that’s adorable.”
Sharon responded, "You’ve now released an endangered species."
It was over 30 years ago when the Wyoming Toad was first listed as endangered. The toad recovery to date has been a huge collaborative effort with landowners, non-profits, the state, and the University of Wyoming. As to when it will be taken off the list, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Keinath said recovery will take a long time.
“That’s a biological question, not a political question,” he said.
But it is often a political question. The Endangered Species Act, or ESA, is credited with keeping 99% of listed species from crossing over into extinction. Nevertheless, critics contend the Act is outdated and ineffective, burdening local wildlife managers with excessive federal oversight and leading to long-running legal battles to get species off the list.
Chief Game Warden with Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department, Brian Nesvik, has seen firsthand the failures of the Act and how state management would be superior. One example is the grizzly bear.
Nesvik explained, “By all biological and scientific measures, grizzly bears have been recovered in Wyoming since 2003. And to this day, after being delisted once and re-listed again, they still remain under federal protections… the goal is not perpetual federal management.”
If there was ever a time for reform it’s now. Both Congress and state leaders are taking advantage of the current anti-regulatory fervor. Since January, 28 pieces of legislation were introduced taking aim at the bill - several focused on making amendments to the Act itself.
Nesvik said, “Why is now the right time? I think number one because it’s overdue. Number two, due in large part to Governor Mead’s leadership.”
In June of 2015, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead launched an initiative as the chairman of the Western Governors' Association to examine the ESA and make policy recommendations to Congress.
Governor Mead’s Policy Advisor David Willms said, “When we have a species that’s recovered, how do we get that recovered species to the point of delisting were back in state control?”
Still, Willms said he recognizes changing the Act may be an uphill battle. But reforms might be easier to swallow from a state-led movement than from Congress — he said their reforms wouldn’t weaken the Act but improve it. And Wyoming Senator John Barrasso is on board.
“Today in the Environment and Public Works Committee, it continues its effort to consider feedback from state officials to modernize the Endangered Species Act,” Barrasso announced at a Senate Committee hearing last month.
Barrasso said the Act just isn’t working in its current form.
“For every 100 species added to the list only three have recovered enough to come off of the list,” Barrasso explained over the phone. “Well, you know as a doctor, I will tell you if for every 100 people I put in the hospital only three recovered enough to come out. I would lose my medical license!”
Like Nesvik, Barrasso believes getting species off the list and back into state management needs to be a priority. But when ESA reformers talk about modernizing, many ears perk up in conservation communities. Noah Greenwald, Endangered Species Director at the Center for Biological Diversity, is one of them.
He said, “I think these calls are entirely disingenuous. Modernize when it comes from the likes of Matt Mead… is a euphemism for: gut protections for endangered species.”
Greenwald took issue with their complaints about the Act. He said it shouldn’t be judged by how few species have been removed from the list, but by how many have been saved.
Greenwald said the ESA is an insurance policy for when states fail to protect their species.
“The states have primary jurisdiction over wildlife within their boundaries,” he said. "The fact that species get listed, reflects that they weren’t able to manage that.”
He added states simply don’t have the expertise or funding to properly protect their species -- and that a potential return to state management would result in an uptick of extinctions.
Back at Mortenson Lake, Taylor got emotional when she remembered re-introducing toads there for the first time over 20 years ago when they were on the brink extinction.
With tears in her eyes, Taylor said, “and seeing all carcass after carcass when they were dying. And we were down to fifty animals… it’s just phenomenal to be out here doing this."
Two decades of collaboration, and now…. a total of about 1,500 Wyoming Toads.
3/30/18 Update: Since President Trump took office last year, there have been 65 pieces of legislation targeting the Endangered Species Act, up from 28. The Wyoming Toad is also successfully adapting to its new environments, with surveys showing wild breeding taking place.