Last week, I was paddling on one of my favorite lakes in northern Dane County. It was one of those lazy, windless summer mornings with the fog slowly lifting off the water. Floating along the bank, I spied a mature bald eagle perched overhead on a high branch of a tree, presumably perusing the lake for a mid-morning snack. It’s always special to see a bald eagle, but it’s not such a rare sight these days.
However, 50 years ago, eagle sightings in Wisconsin were a rarity. The bird — our national symbol — was on its way to extinction in the continental U.S. Their numbers were in free fall from habitat loss and pesticide poisoning. That has changed, in large part, because the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was signed into law 46 years ago. Before the ESA, there were only a few hundred breeding pairs of bald eagles remaining in the lower 48 states. Now, it is estimated that there are more than 15,000 breeding pairs and about 150,000 eagles overall.
The return of the bald eagle is just one of a great many success stories of the Endangered Species Law. Currently the Act protects more than 1,600 plant and animal species in the United States. Examples of species that might be gone without the ESA include the peregrine falcon, the humpback whale, the Tennessee purple coneflower and the Florida manatee. Scientists have estimated that at least 227 species would have likely become extinct since the law’s passage in 1973.
A study by the Center for Biological Diversity found that population numbers for 93% of the species protected under the ESA are stable or improving. Overall, more than 80% of the protected species are meeting the targets established in federal recovery plans.
The Endangered Species Act has rightfully been called our most important wildlife conservation law. It has been a smashing success and enjoys widespread public support. A recent poll found 90% of the people surveyed favored a strong Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, that support does not extend to the current occupant of the White House. Earlier this month, the Trump administration announced that they are gutting key provisions of the Endangered Species Act. In numerous ways, the changes will drastically limit safeguards for threatened species. According to David Hayes, former Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior, the changes will “likely increase the timetable and likelihood of a species going extinct.”
While Americans overwhelmingly support the ESA, one powerful lobby group has long wanted to see the law weakened. The American Petroleum Institute, a trade group representing the oil and gas industry, praised the rule changes because it will allow oil company profits to be considered alongside scientific decisions when evaluating protection of threatened species. Guess what! Andrew Bernhardt, Trump’s Interior secretary who is leading the charge to weaken the ESA, is a former fossil fuels lobbyist.
The ESA passed with broad bipartisan support in 1973. There were only 4 nay votes in the House. Congress’s justification for the ESA is perhaps still the best statement of purpose. They said that “these species of fish, wildlife, and plants are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people.”
As scientific knowledge of genetics and ecology has expanded, there is more reason than ever to protect biodiversity. We’ve learned that the interconnected web of existence provides humans with a great benefits including medical and agricultural. As the Wisconsin naturalist John Muir aptly put it years ago, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
Spencer Black served for 26 years in the state Legislature. He was chair of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee and the Assembly Democratic leader. Since leaving the Legislature, Black has been vice president for conservation for the national Sierra Club and adjunct professor of planning at UW-Madison.
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