Law Protecting Endangered Species May be Endangered Itself

2017-02-21T15:33:17+00:00 February 21, 2017|
A bedrock environmental law protecting endangered species (like the vaquita porpoise, pictured) is scrutinized during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. (Credit: NOAA)

(Click to enlarge) A bedrock environmental law protecting endangered species (like the vaquita porpoise, pictured) is scrutinized during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. (Credit: NOAA)

New reports this month say the critically endangered vaquita porpoise may be close to extinction – the 30 remaining individuals found in the Gulf of California only barely outnumber the 21-member committee that may be sealing their fate.

Approximately 2,270 animals (including 151 marine species like porpoises, whales, and sea turtles) are protected as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1973 (ESA, H.R.37), which safeguards the animals and the ecosystems on which they depend. The decades-old act passed with overwhelming support in the House (390-12) and Senate (92-0) in 1973; however, in recent years the issue has become increasingly partisan. Last Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing to discuss updating and modernizing the law, which (upon signing it) President Richard Nixon said “provides the Federal Government with the needed authority to protect an irreplaceable part of our national heritage – threatened wildlife.”

While witnesses and members alike applauded the purpose of the ESA, critics, including Chairman John Barrasso (WY), argued that few species are successfully removed from the endangered list. Several Republican committee members stated that the ESA infringes on states’ rights and keeps people from being able to run their businesses, and they hope to give more of a voice to those landowners and industries impacted by the act. The Honorable David Freudenthal (Governor, Wyoming) praised the law’s initial success but said there is now a need for “mid-course corrections” as regulations, court decisions, and administrative actions have “created a nearly unworkable system.”

Not everyone found these “mid-course corrections” necessary. Ms. Jamie Rappaport Clark (President and CEO, Defenders of Wildlife) said modernization efforts have “amounted to one thing: a euphemism for undermining and weakening the statute.” The Honorable Daniel Ashe (President and CEO, Association of Zoos and Aquariums), who served as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 2011-2017, cited reports showing the ESA has prevented extinction for 99 percent of species under its protection. He also urged the committee to consider new challenges in the coming century, including the “very real” possibility of losing animals like sea turtles and sharks to climate change. Ranking Member Thomas Carper (DE) reported findings from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation that the estimated the economic benefit of wildlife at roughly $1.6 trillion and said he was so shocked he had to read the number twice. Though attempts have been made for years to reform the Endangered Species Act, with a Republican administration and majority in both chambers of Congress, this is one of the first potential opportunities for changes in what has been a bedrock environmental law.