Endangered Species Act at risk for extinction

Since its enactment in 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has remained a great source of contention. But with the new Trump administration, the controversy over its necessity has reached a new height.

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange have led their states and others to alter the regulations surrounding the ESA by filing a lawsuit in late 2016. However, the issue flared again in January as the Trump administration settled in the White House and the lawyers hoped to appeal to the new president and GOP lawmakers (Scientific American).

The largest concern of the attorneys thus far has been the intrusive nature of the federal government they believe the act allows.

“It has never been used for the rehabilitation of species. It’s been used for control of the land,” claimed House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (Associated Press).

Critics of the act argue the ESA threatens private property owners that might be required to turn over their land for protection of endangered species, as both land inhabited directly by a species and land providing necessary resources for the species has the potential to be reserved by the government (Scientific American).

In addition to loss of private property, there are a number of limitations that can arise from the act’s implementation.

In a report by the Western Energy Alliance, they found the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s 2013 estimates for conservation of habitats for the sage grouse, a type of bird, included the loss of 5,570 to 31,055 jobs. The annual loss was projected to be anywhere from $839 million to $5.6 billion (Scientific American).

Knowing this, it would appear the next course of action would be to tailor the rules. And yet, although the regulations may seem to be doing more harm than good, the solution isn’t as simple as it may seem.

“Habitat loss is the single largest cause of species extinction worldwide, so the ability to preserve the habitat needed by species is the most powerful tool of the Endangered Species Act,” stated Bradley Cardindale, the director of the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. “Conservation of biological diversity provides people with insurance that the world will be able to produce their air, water and food even as the climate changes” (Climate Central).

A 2015 report by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America also examined some of the economic impacts of the ESA.

“We analyze data on all 88,290 consultations recorded by FWS from January 2008 through April 2015,” states the report. “In contrast to conventional wisdom…no project was stopped or extensively altered as a result of FWS finding jeopardy or adverse modification during this period.”

Both facts point to a primary question about contemporary priority, and the answer lies with weighing the benefits of protecting endangered species. The economic issues pose a definite threat to financial stability, but allowing the welfare of the environment to decline could create an equally daunting predicament, especially when the full extent to which a species can affect human populations is considered.

“The drawbacks are often economic,” acknowledges Chemistry and AP Environmental Science teacher, Ms. Nguyen. “The ESA limits where people can develop land, harvest resources like lumber, and where they’re allowed to fish and hunt.”

But she recognizes the significance of environmental changes, noting while the act has disadvantages, there are also positive impacts to consider.

“There are these natural processes we call “ecosystem services”— examples include purification of air and water, storm protection, soil restoration — that are vital to support life, human and otherwise,” she explains. “Some endangered species are important players in the ecosystems that support these services and without them, we would definitely see a decline in the benefits we already enjoy from the environment.”

The role wildlife plays in the lives of humans is much more essential than many realize, as shown in a 2014 White House report examining the importance of bees and other pollinators.

“Insect pollination is integral to food security in the United States. Honey bees enable the production of at least 90 commercially grown crops in North America. Globally, 87 of the leading 115 food crops evaluated are dependent on animal pollinators, contributing 35 percent of global food production” (White House).

This would suggest that even small insects, when unprotected, could place pressure on agricultural supplies. The potential fall of bees and other pollinators could jeopardize a number of other agrarian businesses and societal stability. Even more serious is the potential outbreak of disease.

“With less environmental protection worldwide, I also am fairly certain that we would see a greater incidence of new diseases emerging from areas that were once enclosed in relatively untouched areas of the world — plants and animals that have been living harmoniously with scientifically-unknown viruses and bacteria will have more interactions with humans (either through hunting or habitat loss) and this will cause more diseases to jump species, like what we’ve seen recently with Zika and SARS,” explains Nguyen.

Within their ecosystems, species like the Canadian Lynx also help to regulate populations and maintain biodiversity. Their prey, including voles and snowshoe hares, are considered agricultural nuisances that, when unchecked, could have economic consequences for farmers (Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan). The same species has also been the subject of frustration because it prevented logging projects designated as harmful for its habitat and welfare (Seattle Times).

Like the Canadian Lynx, all species play a role in their ecosystem eventually involving humans, but finding the balance between their benefits and drawbacks in relation to humans has proved to be especially troublesome.

The benefits of the Endangered Species Act are evident, but they don’t mitigate the problematic financial strain. Optimally, neither landowners nor the environment should suffer, but this ideal scenario is more easily dreamed of than achieved. Which begs yet another question: How will the world balance these issues?

There is no determinable answer as of yet. But what can be seen amidst the controversy is the fragile entropy of the relationship between man and nature, a tense state of coexistence that ultimately places society’s priorities in question.

“I do think that just like so many other political issues of our time, informing more people who are living in areas where reserves are placed about the species being protected, why, and why people should care, should be an added component of the ESA…” states Nguyen.

As the economic and ecological suffering persists, consideration of human action becomes evident. Conversations, between people of all sides of the issue, are requisite to progress.