Endangered Species Act: Headed for Extinction?

What happens when you remove a card from the bottom of a house of cards? Do you see collapse? Or do you see the cards reorganize themselves according to gravity? Perhaps you see a deck ready for poker. Regardless, something is missing. Ecosystems and the species that comprise them, are nature’s houses and its cards. When species become endangered or go extinct, ecosystems respond in kind. The Endangered Species Act is a tool designed to stay the hand that pulls at the webs of nature’s architecture.

Western North American sagebrush habitat (Artemisia tridentata). Photo Credit: Sue Weis, Inyo National Forest, USDA Forest Service.
The Purpose of the Endangered Species Act.

It is that range of biodiversity that we must care for – the whole thing – rather than just one or two stars.

— Sir David Attenborough, world-renowned naturalist and educational television innovator, narrator of Blue Planet II.  

It is this line of thinking that has pushed humans to be more aware of their impact on the natural planet, and helped to shape society and policy to protect the species with whom we share this planet. One of these safeguards has been the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a law that was enacted in 1973 to protect and recover imperiled species of plants and animals and the ecosystems upon which they depend. At that time, Congress recognized our rich, natural heritage is of esthetic, ecological, educational, recreational, and scientific value to our nation and its people, and deemed the potential extinction of many of our nation’s native plants and animals as a growing concern needing to be addressed.

Potential Overhaul of the ESA.

That law has stood to safeguard perilous native plants and animals for 45 years, and has thwarted challenges and changes, until now. In the last few weeks, there has been a new push to overhaul the ESA in an effort to open up economic development and American livelihood rather than protect threatened species. As reported by the NY Times, new provisions include weighing the economic consequence against protecting plants and animals in danger of extinction, making it more difficult to list a new species for protection, and making it easier to remove those already on the list. This comes largely as a result of a Republican controlled White House and Congress, in addition to a president who has made deregulation of many environmental laws and initiatives, a main focus of his administration.

The deregulation would open up economic opportunities for several industries, including oil and gas, logging, farming and ranching, and allow owners and lessees to utilize lands that have been protected for nearly half a century. These industries present a valid claim to amending the ESA, as some cannot use portions of their own land that have been deemed critical habitat for wildlife, and there is no government compensation that specifically address losses incurred due to the ESA. This has left some struggling to pay bills or keep lands, and created real economic and political interest in moderating the ESA’s reach.

What Does This Mean for Wildlife?

Species already listed on the ESA would remain, but could see protections stripped, such as the gray wolf, the sage grouse, and the American burying beetle, among others.

Gray Wolf (Canis lupus). Photo Credit: John and Karen Hollingsworth, USFWS.

The gray wolf has been a hallmark species of the ESA due to the successful revival of the population in the Midwest and Great Lakes region. Gray wolves once ranged from coast to coast, and from Alaska to Mexico to North America. In the early 20th century, intensive eradication efforts by hunters and trappers and declining numbers of prey, including bison, elk, deer, moose, and beaver, brought the gray wolf to the brink of extinction in the lower 48 states. By the early 1900s, wolves were eliminated from the southern portion of Michigan, and were nearly eradicated from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota by 1960. Today, the grey wolf population is considered recovered and healthy in the western Great Lakes region, mostly the result of the ESA that made killing or harming wolves illegal, and the ESA requirement to prepare a Recovery Plan. Wolves have continued to expand back into areas of west-central and east-central Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and are likely to continue recovering into the Midwest. Gray wolves have a significant impact on their ecosystem as top predators that control prey species populations and provide carrion for scavenger species. Elk have been noted to change their behavior to avoid wolf predation, which results in willow, aspen, and cottonwood regrowth, providing habitat for songbirds and food for beavers. Beavers in turn have been shown to architect habitats for other migrating endangered species like steelhead trout. Despite this remarkable success, proposed ESA revisions would strip critical protection from gray wolves in Wyoming and along the western Great Lakes. Once again, they’d be prone to killing and hunting threats, and their absence could upset the ecological balance and stability they provide.

Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). Photo Credit: USFWS.
Lek, a communal ground where sage grouse perform mating dance ritual. Photo Credit: Dave Showalter, Audubon.

The sage grouse is the largest grouse species in North America, and is best known for its mating dance in communal grounds called leks. The sage grouse distribution spans 11 states, including Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, and Idaho, and their home range can cover nearly 230 square miles. More importantly, sage grouse habitat is entirely dependent on sagebrush, which is the most widespread vegetation in Western North American and includes 18 woody plant species, native grasses, and forbs. Sagebrush also acts as an essential habitat for 350 other species!  However, the sage grouse population has been in an estimated population decline of 30% since 1985, with primary threats including loss and fragmentation of sagebrush, invasive plants, agricultural conversion, and lack of regulatory mechanisms to protect sagebrush. Provisions in a House-passed spending bill include prohibiting the Department of the Interior from placing the sage grouse on the endangered species list for the next 10 years. This enables sagebrush habitat to remain open for oil and gas development across 11 states, and the fate of sage grouse and the 350 other dependent species would be in question.

American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus). Photo Credit: Doug Backlund, South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks.

The American burying beetle is uniquely known as a “giant carrion beetle”, meaning it uses carrion (or dead carcasses) as part of its life cycle and food source. Its historical range has spanned from the Northeast to the Midwest, but populations have been in decline for almost a century and only two known populations remain in Rhode Island and Oklahoma. Burying beetle behavior, while peculiar, provide important ecological services by recycling decaying organic material back into the soil as nutrients for plants. Males will locate a carcass that is larger than themselves, bury it, and females lay eggs a few days later next to it so the larvae can feed off the carcass. American burying beetles are also scavengers, and regularly consume decaying vegetation and a wide range of species of carrion. Current plans to overhaul the ESA would remove the beetle from the endangered list, and have similar consequences as those of the sage grouse – it would open up lands for oil companies to drill. No burying beetle may leave the ecosystem wondering who will take out the trash?

Human Impact on Endangered Species.

Species extinction is a natural process, and has been occurring long before humans. Fossil records show that background extinction rates for marine life is 0.1-1 extinctions per million species per year, and for mammals it’s 0.2-0.5 extinctions per million species per year. Today, the rate of extinction is estimated to be 100 to 1,000 times more than what would be considered natural, a rate not seen since the last global mass-extinction event.

If these ‘species’ cards are pulled from the bottom of the ‘ecological’ house, the concern becomes a collapse or irreversible shift in biomes, also known as a “tipping point”.

The main driver of these elevated extinction rates are changes in the landscape that make up species’ habitats. These changes can include segmenting or fragmenting ecosystems via development, changes in duration, frequency, or magnitude of wildfires, the introduction of new species into land and freshwater environments, or the conversion of natural land into agriculture or urban areas. Unfortunately, economic development is valued more than the protection of species, especially if economic incentives are in place. It would seem that the safeguard and protection of endangered species and ecosystems from extinction due to human actions was the reason the Endangered Species Act was drafted and passed into law in the first place.

A Moral Obligation.

Human induced, accelerated extinction rates should create a sense of urgency among our society.  We are the only species capable of altering our environment on a global scale, and we have done that for our gain and at the expense of our cohabitants, resulting in the sixth mass extinction event in our planet’s history. At what point do we grasp our moral obligation to correct the damage we have done, not only to salvage the ecological services these systems provide, but to take responsibility for our actions? Human growth and economic expansion can no longer come at the expense of our planet. An ecological house of cards that has collapsed can neither be rebuilt as easily, nor may it resemble the form we are currently accustomed to. An overhaul of the ESA may be a sign of a shifting societal perspective away from environmental consciousness, in a time when we need it most.

Blog Article Co-authors: 




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Nick Iraola

Nick has a Master of Science in Marine Science from UNC Wilmington. He has worked in the Aquatic Ecology Laboratory since 2015, and which monitors the water quality in the Lower Cape Fear River Basin. His master's thesis research pertained to eutrophication and nutrient cycling within a freshwater lake in Wilmington, NC. When he's not sciencing, Nick enjoys running, swimming, cooking, sailing, and catching up with friends and family. His favorite candy is Reese's pb cups, because what is there not to like!?

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