By Annalise Bokenkamp
It’s been a little scary out in the world these past few years. It seems that every time we take a few steps forward, we take almost as many back. COVID, wildfires, a building in Chicago that killed 1,000 birds in one night…it can be hard to find things to be happy about. But it’s not all doom and gloom! In fact, we just celebrated a pretty important birthday a few weeks ago. December 28th, 2023, marked the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act! The passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 was an incredible milestone in U.S. conservation history, and, despite some flaws, it’s more than worthy of celebration.
The ESA is one of the most important wildlife conservation laws ever passed in this country. In a nutshell, the ESA “provides a framework to conserve and protect endangered and threatened species and their habitats both domestically and abroad.” While the ESA was preceded by several similar laws in 1966 and 1969, when it was proposed in its current form in 1973, it was the most major conservation law that our country had seen since the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1918.
A lesser-known (at least for people who aren’t birders!) species that has been saved by the ESA is the Kirtland’s Warbler. This large warbler was one of the first species to be listed as endangered and was finally de-listed in 2019. However, the Kirtland’s isn’t out of the woods yet (pun intended) as its habitat is very limited.
It may be hard to believe, especially considering our current political and environmental state, but the ESA was passed almost unanimously in both the Senate and the House, with only a few representatives voting against it. Imagine that happening in support of conservation today! At the time, there was a sort of environmental awakening occurring, partially spurred by the obvious decline of some iconic species, such as the Bald Eagle. While a list of endangered animal species had been created in 1969, the ESA allowed that list to be expanded to include plants and invertebrates, as well, and the ESA also allowed critical habitat to be identified and set aside in order to help endangered species recover.
The current list of endangered species has about 1,600 names on it. And while the ESA has what’s really an amazing track record—about 63 species have recovered enough to be de-listed, and only about 32 species have gone extinct since 1973, most of which were either already extinct or too far gone by the time the list was created—it’s far from perfect.
Endangered species are handled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which doesn’t have enough money to implement the ESA properly. Additionally, it can take up to ten years to officially list a species once it has been proposed because a thorough review of the data pertaining to the species’ status must be conducted. This means that, often, there aren’t enough preventative measures taken to keep a species from becoming endangered in the first place; the FWS can only react once the species has been listed. Furthermore, the ESA works far better on public lands than it does on private lands because it’s a lot easier for a private landowner to avoid the restrictions.
Another controversial part of the ESA is that it allows for incidental take permits. This is where some of the debate over businesses like wind farms, oil companies, or commercial fishing comes in: Organizations can apply for permits that will allow them to conduct their business, even if it harms endangered species, as long as they don’t intend the harm, and any deaths (or “take”) are incidental to their actual aim.
The process of getting a permit isn’t exactly easy, though: the applicant must list what damage could occur from their business, what steps they’ll take to mitigate that damage, what alternative actions could be taken, and why those actions won’t work. If the organization meets these criteria and the relevant Secretary (of the Interior, of Commerce, or sometimes of Agriculture) approves, then they are issued with an incidental take permit and can carry on with their activities. Incidental take must be reported annually, and permits can be revoked if the conditions aren’t being met.
In recent years, the ESA has faced several challenges with revisions being proposed in order to make it less restrictive, the argument being that the Act weakens the economy. These accusations against the Act are all the more disappointing considering the strong support that the ESA had when it was first initiated. Saving the environment has become a dividing factor when, in reality, it should be a goal that we’re all striving towards.
Without the protections afforded by the ESA, we wouldn’t have grizzly bears, we wouldn’t have alligators, we wouldn’t have Whooping Cranes or Kirtland’s Warblers, or even Bald Eagles. President Nixon, who signed the ESA into law, declared, “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.”
The ESA has protected much of that rich array over the last 50 years, and you can help, too, by supporting initiatives that are good for birds and for the environment. BSBO has a few suggestions for how you can help us help birds, and those suggestions can be found at Easy Ways for YOU to Support Conservation - BSBO and at CONSERVATION INITIATIVES - BWIAB. You can also vote for politicians who support eco-friendly strategies and write to your representatives to encourage them to consider important bird areas in their renewable energy policies. If you want even more suggestions on how to be bird-friendly (and I’m sure you do!), our friends at American Bird Conservancy have tips on how to get involved at abcbirds.org/get-involved.
If we all work together, maybe there will come a time when there are no names left on the endangered species list. But until then, raise a toast to the 50th anniversary of the ESA; here’s hoping it gets even better and stronger over the next 50!