Article republished with permission from the League of Conservation Voters.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is facing unprecedented attacks that threaten some of our nation’s most important species. At the same time, the climate crisis and irresponsible development are leading to catastrophic losses of plant and animal species. Some biologists estimate that 35% of animals and plants could become extinct in the wild by 2050 due to climate change alone. While working to curb our emissions and ensure a livable planet for every species on Earth, we must also ensure that those most at risk and their habitats are protected. This year, on the 50th anniversary of the ESA’s passage, it is more important than ever to uphold this foundational environmental law in the face of continued threats.
The ESA’s 50 Years of Success
President Nixon signed the ESA into law in 1973 with overwhelming bipartisan support. The ESA ensures that species in danger of extinction, as well as the ecosystems that support those species, benefit from comprehensive protections. Since its passage, the ESA has secured the survival of iconic species including our nation’s emblem, the bald eagle.
Indeed, the ESA has been credited with saving 99% of listed species from extinction, and this achievement is due to the essential collaboration between federal agencies and state, local, and tribal governments. Success stories include the survival of the Florida manatee, seven species of sea turtles, the Channel Island fox, and the gray wolf. Importantly, these species and their habitats are not separate from us. These creatures inhabit the same coasts, forests, bays, and grasslands we do. Often, their loss is an indicator of a broader habitat decline which affects all of us – from the water we drink, the soil we grow our food in, to the larger balance of ecosystems we too are a part of.
Today’s Unprecedented Attacks on the ESA
There has long been opposition to the ESA’s protections for vulnerable species and habitats, primarily in the name of agricultural development and economic growth. The Trump administration undertook various efforts, both executive and administrative, to prioritize economic development, prevent the use of the best available science, narrow the definition of “habitat,” and overall to interfere with federal agencies’ abilities to prevent species’ extinction. Now, the Biden-Harris administration is taking steps to reverse those actions and strengthen regulations to protect threatened species.
However, the attacks continue in Congress. In May, the Senate took an unprecedented step of voting to remove protections for an individually protected species, the critically imperiled lesser prairie chicken, using a deregulatory tool called the Congressional Review Act (CRA). The CRA is an extreme anti-regulatory law, passed under Speaker Gingrich’s leadership in the 90’s, that allows Congress to overturn rules made by an administration and explicitly bans any “substantially similar” rules from being pursued in the future. Historically, this has been abused by anti-environmental members of Congress who want to permanently strip away protections for our environment, wildlife, and natural heritage. In this case, it could prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from ever protecting the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act in the future, even if its populations collapsed or just a handful of individual birds remained.
The Senate’s May CRA vote was quickly followed by two more votes to remove protections for the northern long-eared bat and to rescind the Biden administration’s expanded definition of “habitat,” which would severely curtail which lands or waters could be considered in ESA designations. President Biden has vowed to veto both resolutions should they pass the House, stating that they would undermine our country’s proud tradition of wildlife conservation and risk the extinction of many critical species.
This is part of a larger pattern of attacks on the ESA driven primarily by development and gas and oil interests. Just last week, House Republicans held a hearing “evaluating the costs of the Endangered Species Act” and advocating for individual landowners to make decisions about the future of these species, over scientists and experts. House Republicans also released their interior and environment appropriations bill which proposes funding for everything from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Interior for the Fiscal Year 2024. The bill includes specific provisions rescinding protections under the ESA for critical species like the gray wolf, lesser prairie-chicken, northern long-eared bat, and sage grouse. And we expect to see additional amendments attacking endangered species and their habitats throughout this process.