THE ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT APPROACHES THIRTY
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 is pushing thirty. During this time the ESA has been legislatively modified, ruled on by the Supreme Court, under-funded, re-authorized, praised, and cursed. It has even managed to successfully stabilize and occasionally improve the survivability of hundreds of plant and animal species that have been and often still are threatened with extinction. The rationale for the ESA was clearly stated in the Congressional declaration of the act.
"The Congress finds and declares that various species have been rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation... Other species are in danger of or threatened with extinction and are of aesthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific values to the Nation and its people... ... The purposes are to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species depend may be conserved, to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species. ... "
In order to accomplish this Congressional intent the ESA created two primary processes. First, the designation of a species as threatened or endangered was to be accomplished through a listing process based exclusively upon a scientific assess ment of the current ecological status of a species. The assessment was also to include a determination of any critical habitat necessary for recovery. Second, species protection was to be achieved via a documented recovery plan designed to first stabilize and then attain a species population whose longer term survival was no longer in doubt.
Note that the Congress recognized that, far and away, habitat loss associated with economic growth and development was the primary activity which led to the existence of both threatened and endangered species. But also realize that it is a myth that the ESA fails to recognize or appreciate the socioeconomic effects of measures proposed for the conservation of species. While the listing is to be exclusively science- based, the recovery plan must include a socioeconomic assessment of the impact such a plan will have. The designation of critical habitat essential to species conservation is probably the most controversial aspect of the ESA. Many have argued that the ESA should really be the Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act and should focus on entire ecosystems that are threatened with profound impacts that will affect many species.
There has been a wide and deep public support for the ESA that has led to its re-authorization numerous times. However, its enemies in the Congress have very effectively limited its intent by restricting funding for biological surveys and recovery programs and by micro-managing the Department of Interior. Political grandstanding and the perpetuation of myths in an attempt to sway the mood of the voting public have been a hallmark of many western Congressmen over the last several decades.
The unspoken reality we all face is that as our population grows and the level of affluence and economic activity of the consumer society accelerates, there will be more and more impacts to the natural environment upon which we all depend. Ultimately, Americans will be faced with the reality that we cannot have it both ways. We will have to adopt some limits to our population and economic activity if we have any hope at all of living in biological equilibrium with the rest of the creatures that call this planet home. Controversy associated with the ESA serves to remind us of this reality.
In the coming years the good citizens of Utah will get an extra dose of the ESA issue as advocates for the protection of wolf, lynx, and native cutthroat trout make the case for listing and continued protection.