This essay was written in April of 2008 by Ryan C. Stebbins.
The protection of endangered species is a controversial topic, but an important one. As the dominant species on this planet, humans need to act responsibly regarding the treatment and management of the other living creatures with which we share this world. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was signed into law by President Nixon in December of 1973. Although not the first law of its kind, the ESA is the first law to actually attempt to preserve endangered species, instead of simply listing species that are vanishing (Di Silvestro, par. 5). The Act makes it illegal to import, export, or sell listed animals and plants across state lines. It also is illegal to take listed animals from the wild without a special permit; it is illegal to possess, harass, harm, or kill them. The penalty for such actions can be up to $200,000 and/or a year spent in jail (de Koster, par. 6). Advocates of the ESA believe that the law works, and that it has already saved many species from extinction. Others believe that the ESA does quite the opposite. One concept that any responsible person can agree on, however, is that the human species needs to consider its actions and what they do to other species living on Earth.
An endangered species is one that is endemic and is extremely at risk of extinction. Endemic species are ones that originate in one specific region and can be found nowhere else. The study of endangered species and how to preserve them can be a complex one, and many people do not realize the impact that seemingly small actions may have on large ecosystems. Communities of living organisms can be disrupted and destroyed simply by chain reactions. Here is just one example. James Estes and others at UC Santa Cruz traced a massive decline in the number of sea otters off the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to greater predation by killer whales. The preferred diet of killer whales are Steller sea lions and harbor seals, both of which have declined in population recently, perhaps due to overharvesting of ocean perch and herring, which these seals prefer to eat. Managers of fisheries did not believe that ocean perch and herring were being overharvested, but they were unaware of what was occurring in other marine habitats, including kelp forests. After killer whales caused sea otter numbers to decline, sea urchins, which are the preferred prey of sea otters, drastically increased in number. Sea urchins eat kelp, and thus they effectively clear-cut kelp forests along the Alaskan coast. This loss of kelp may affect the populations of fishes that use kelp forests as habitats, and this, in turn, may affect bald eagles and other coastal birds that prey on the fishes. This example shows how many different species may be affected by a single change (Starr 468).
Supporters of the ESA, such as Roger Di Silvestro, senior editor for National Wildlife magazine, believe that the ESA is effective and that it has saved endangered animal and plant species. He also believes that the act is good for the environment as a whole, because it protects the habitats of the endangered species. The purpose of the ESA was to make illegal the extinction of species resulting from human activities. According to Di Silvestro, the law protects more than 1,200 U.S. plant and animal species and more than 550 foreign species. He says that besides benefitting from their aesthetic value, some of these species may provide us with benefits such as cures to serious illnesses. Di Silvestro believes that the law has been successful within a relatively short time span. In his article, Di Silvestro lists 30 species that, according to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and 10 other conservation groups, would be very diminished or extinct, had it not been for the law’s protection. The list was compiled in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the ESA (Di Silvestro, pars. 1-10).
Among the recovered species is the bald eagle. According to Di Silvestro, 100,000 of these birds lived over the lower 48 states before Columbus came to the Americas. By 1963, they were cut down to only 417 nesting pairs due to hunting, pesticide contamination, and habitat loss. However, due to captive-breeding programs and habitat protection initiated by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) under the ESA, as well as help from a 1972 ban of the pesticide DDT, the birds have increased in number to nearly 6,500 pairs in the lower 48 states. Other examples of animals that have been helped by the ESA via various means, such as habitat protection, removal of threats, reintroductions, and other methods include the following: the Florida panther, which increased in number from 35 animals in the 1980s to 80 animals in recent years; the key deer, which increased from 25 animals in 1950 to around 500 now; the Mauna Kea silversword, which increased from 48 plants to about 500; the Florida manatee, which increased from 1,000 animals in the 1960s to around 3,000 now; and the grey bat, which increased from 128,000 in 1976 to 1.5 million now (Di Silvestro, pars. 11-20).
Similarly, Katie de Koster, editor for Opposing Viewpoints, says that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has shown that legislation can help prevent the extinction of species. According to her, the laws should be retained as well as improved and better funded. She points out that just because an endangered species or ecosystem might be harmed by new development does not necessarily mean that development must be ceased. Sometimes a developer may be allowed to “mitigate” the damage. In this case, the developer is allowed to develop land and destroy or change an ecosystem, as long as they take actions to ensure that the endangered species are left no worse off than they would have been if the land had been left as it was. This often means providing a dedicated area for wildlife. This can be in the form of setting aside a portion of the land, buying other suitable land, or providing money to help maintain another site where the species or ecosystem can live. Koster says that although the ESA has only been law for a quarter of a century, it has already helped many species survive. Fish and Wildlife Service director Mollie Beattie points out that, among other things, less than 1 percent of listed species have died out. Beattie says that the fact that more than ninety-nine percent of all endangered species continue to exist is one of the endangered species program’s greatest successes (de Koster, pars. 1-11).
Others, such as Jeff Jacoby, a syndicated conservative columnist, believe that the ESA is largely a failure. He says that while perhaps having saved a few species, the ESA has mostly led to the destruction of many more. According to him, the ESA imposes high economic costs on private property owners by restricting such activities as logging and farming if endangered species are found on their land. Many landowners counter this by killing the animals or destroying their habitat before the government is able to find them (Jacoby, par. 2).
Jacoby notes that when the ESA reached its 25th anniversary in 1998, the supposed official number of endangered species was near an all-time high. According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, while 1,135 plant and animal species are on the brink of extinction, only 27 species have been “delisted” from their status of being endangered. Jacoby believes that the ESA, while created with admirable motives and hopes, is a failure. According to Brian Seasholes of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a public policy center in Washington, nearly none of the species that have been saved recently were actually saved due to efforts of the ESA. He says that most of the 29 species that were proposed for delisting by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in 1998 were either never actually endangered to begin with, were restored on lands where ESA restrictions do not apply, or were not even valid species. Jacoby uses the bald eagle as an example, saying that although advocates of the ESA claim the law helped the bald eagle stabilize its numbers, the number of bald eagles was already rising when Congress passed the ESA and they were listed as endangered in 1974. He says that although there were only 1,600 left in 1974, this was nearly double the 834 that had existed 10 years earlier. According to Brian Seasholes, the banning of the pesticide DDT is the main factor that helped increase bald eagle numbers. He says that they were dying out because DDT caused their eggs to be thin-shelled, resulting in the shells breaking before hatching. Citing more examples, Jacoby insists that time and again it is private initiative that has saved a species from depletion or extinction (Jacoby, pars. 4-16).
Ike C. Sugg, former executive director of the Exotic Wildlife Association and a member of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an organization that supports the use of private property rights to protect the environment, agrees with Jacoby. He says that the ESA penalizes private landowners for having endangered species on their property. This penalization can include land-use restrictions, expensive permit requirements, red tape, lost opportunities, lost income, cost-prohibitive legal fees, and property taxes on land that can no longer be used. Sugg goes on to say that, due to these restrictions and penalties, the ESA has caused many farmers and ranchers to turn against the ESA and the species that it attempts to protect. The ESA has produced enemies of wildlife, not defenders of wildlife, he says, and thus it encourages habitat destruction, not habitat conservation. He also says that most landowners would gladly preserve endangered species on their land, if only the penalizing regulations did not exist (Sugg, pars. 1-22) .
In conclusion, although one side of this argument believes that the ESA works and the other believes that it does not, each realizes that protecting endangered species is a good cause. This provides excellent common ground to work toward improvement. The ESA clearly operates with some faulty methods, but critics of the law must admit that when it was established, it was initially done with good intentions. Advocates of the ESA, on the other hand, need to realize that the law is not perfect, and that not only can it be improved – it absolutely needs to be.
Such improvements might include rewarding landowners for having endangered species on their land, instead of punishing them. As Ike Sugg says, “solving this problem of publicly owned wildlife residing on privately owned habitat is the main goal of true ESA reform. The trick is to do it without treating private land as if it were legally owned or controlled by the government” (Sugg, par. 22). Instead of using funds to worry landowners with regulations and fines, the ESA should make it profitable, or at least not a burden, for landowners to have endangered species on their land. Those who carry out the regulations of the ESA should perhaps pay the landowners based on how well they preserve the land for the endangered species, instead of simply imposing harsh regulations and practices on them. If the advocates of the ESA as well as the critics were to join forces, certainly a more effective and viable solution to the problems facing endangered species could be found. After all, once these species are gone, there will be no second chance.
de Koster, Katie. “Legislation Can Save Endangered Species.” Opposing Viewpoints Digests: Endangered Species. Ed. Katie de Koster. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale. VCCS System – used for scripted access. 2 Apr. 2008 <http://find.galegroup.com.ezproxy.vccs.edu:2048/ovrc/
Di Silvestro, Roger. “The Endangered Species Act Is Effective.” Opposing Viewpoints: Conserving the Environment. Ed. Douglas Dupler. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2006. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale. VCCS System – used for scripted access. 2 Apr. 2008 <http://find.galegroup.com.ezproxy.vccs.edu:2048/ovrc/
Jacoby, Jeff. “The Endangered Species Act Is a Failure.” Opposing Viewpoints: Endangered Species. Ed. Helen Cothran. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2001. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale. VCCS System – used for scripted access. 2 Apr. 2008 <http://find.galegroup.com.ezproxy.vccs.edu:2048/ovrc/
Starr, Cecie, and Ralph Taggart. Biology: The Unity and Diversity of Life.
11th ed. United States: Thomson, 2006.
Sugg, Ike C. “The Endangered Species Act Must Be Reformed.” Opposing Viewpoints: The Environment. Ed. Laura K. Egendorf. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2005. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale. VCCS System – used for scripted access. 4 Apr. 2008 <http://find.galegroup.com.ezproxy.vccs.edu:2048/ovrc/