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Peter Lehner’s Blog

The Endangered Species Act: 40 Years of Wildlife Protection

Peter Lehner

Posted November 13, 2013

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When I was growing up, my mother wouldn’t let us have a dog. So we tamed chipmunks and squirrels in our backyard, and the birds who came to our feeder. As I got older, and started to visit more remote places, I became more concerned about keeping my food away from the animals than feeding them. And while I was perfectly happy not see a grizzly when I was alone in northern Alaska, knowing that they were out there somewhere was an integral part of the experience. It would be unthinkable to get out into nature and not encounter any wildlife, not because you’ve taken the appropriate precautions, but because the animals aren’t there anymore. They’ve vanished.

Fortunately, since my days as a backyard explorer, hundreds of species, including the grizzly bear, the gray wolf, and the whooping crane, as well as creatures closer to my current backyard, like the shortnose sturgeon that thrives once again in the Hudson River, have not vanished. Their place in our understanding of the world around us has been preserved, thanks to the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Tonight I’m attending a special event in celebration of the act, which turns 40 this year. We’re honoring the law itself, which, from my perspective as an environmental litigator, has been and remains a powerful tool for protection; and several of the act’s strongest advocates in government, who have been instrumental in its success. In recent years, the Endangered Species Act has come under attack from lawmakers bent on weakening environmental protections. This landmark law, the most successful wildlife protection tool we have, needs our support now more than ever.

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As the naturalist John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” That’s the beauty of the Endangered Species Act, a law that has preserved 99 percent of every species granted its protections—and in doing so, is preserving so much more. When the act prompts action to save wolves, for example, it also helps preserve an entire ecosystem. A strong, healthy wolf population keeps other populations in check; elk won’t eat every shred of vegetation that helps anchor a river bank, and coyotes won’t devour all the little rodents that eagles eye from afar. When we seek to protect the whitebark pine tree, we’re also preserving the plants that thrive in its shade and the high-calorie nuts that help grizzlies get through the winter. So while the Endangered Species Act has an impressive clarity of purpose—zero extinction—its benefits have vast ripple effects throughout an ecosystem.

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NRDC has used the Endangered Species Act time and again in our conservation efforts, to protect grizzly bears from habitat destruction in the Northern Rockies, and sperm whales threatened by oil and gas development in the Gulf of Mexico. And recently, we called upon the act to defend polar bears from the threat of global warming—the first time the Endangered Species Act has been put into play in the battle against climate change.

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The threats that face wildlife and their habitat today are different from the dangers they faced 40 years ago. But the authors of the act had the foresight to focus on the preservation of species, rather than a particular kind of harm. That’s why this law has been so effective over the decades, and will continue to be instrumental in our efforts to preserve America’s wildlife heritage for generations to come.

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Pauline st. DenisNov 13 2013 12:47 PM

We must protect and preserve "the wild". It is our national legacy , commerce aside. I am proud to do so and to educate others on doing so

Monica SmithNov 13 2013 12:49 PM

All species of life are entitled to live unharmed

Natalie KruseNov 13 2013 01:51 PM

As a little girl, my father taught me the importance of conserving and protecting the environment. It is really significant in this day and age to protect what we, as a nation, have in the way of plants, wildife, natural ecosystems, and, in some cases, ways of life. If we don't, our own lives, as well as our children's, will be forever diminished and perhaps even destroyed.

Damien SchiffNov 14 2013 12:31 PM

Muir's idea that everything is connected to everything else may have some poetic value, but that's about it. Ecosystems are constantly in flux; the idea that every "species" (itself an "iffy" concept) is important to every ecosystem is scientifically rather passe. See Mark Sagoff, Muddle or Muddle Through? Takings Jurisprudence Meets the Endangered Species Act, 38 WM. & MARY L. REV. 825, 830 (1997) (“Ecologists in their scientific endeavors largely have abandoned the idea that an order exists in nature---a balance, harmony, homeostasis, integrity, or whatever---in which each species plays a role.”). In fact, by treating extinction as presumptively bad, the ESA ignores the “harsh facts of life” because “[e]xtinction is an essential part of the brutal, unforgiving struggle that is evolution.” John Charles Kunich, The Fallacy of Deathbed Conservation Under the Endangered Species Act, 24 ENVTL. L. 501, 560 (1994). Extinction is ecologically helpful because it “clears limited habitat and resources for use by the species that are best adapted for current conditions.” Id. It is a “natural method of weeding the garden, of filtering out the weaker, or inflexible, or anachronistic species so as to maximize the evolutionary fitness of the gene pool at any point in time.” Id.

Jacinta StortenNov 16 2013 07:14 PM

Dear Mr Lehner,
thank you for this article in assisting me to understand what protections are in place for the polar bear. The reason I came across your article is because I came across a horrific website when google image-searching Yakutsk traditional clothing, and I was sick to my stomach by what I saw on this particular website. Please forgive my ignorance on this matter, however I am Australian and therefore I'm not as familiar with conservation and protection legislation for endangered species in the North Pole region. The website in question showed disgusting photos of slaughtered polar bears and other rare species, all of which had been taken by the website's owner under the guise of his 'business', identifying itself as 'Alaskan Hunting Safaris'. There was no attempt made to disguise or conceal the activities of this parasitic and destructive 'business', which in itself was almost as shocking as the graphic photos displayed on this website. It is my understanding that polar bears are afforded a level of protection in legislation given their IUCN red list status ( so I am horrified to find that this type of business is permitted. It is very disturbing that a person can profit off the killing of an endangered species for 'sport', especially in an enlightened age of heightened awareness concerning biodiversity and conservation.
The website is called polarbearhunting dot net and I ask that you please pass on this information to the relevant bodies or give me the contact information to do so, if possible.

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