Climate change, it turns out, is not the first time humanity has re‑made the Earth. Or resorted to a Hail Mary to save it.
Fifty years ago, in a crowning achievement of American environmental legislation, the country passed a law on the short list of our very best ideas. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 reversed one of the most disturbing histories of wildlife destruction of any modern nation, meriting its characterization by the Supreme Court as the most comprehensive legislation for endangered species on the globe. The ESA was an expression of our country’s long history of extending rights to those who lack them, expanding the circle of morality and compassion in a history that reveals us as a people. Today, the ESA may be equally as important for what it says about our will to stave off environmental disaster.
Many Americans no longer remember what was at stake in the 1960s and 1970s. While creating the greatest nation in the world, the United States engaged in a staggering destruction of continental wildlife. Encouraged by notions of human exceptionalism and market capitalism to treat wild animals as commodities, convinced that in a deity-created world extinction was impossible, Americans had blithely obliterated one ancient species after another. Animals that had been here for millions of years were not able to survive four centuries of us. Some—the American bison, our national mammal—dwindled from vast numbers to almost nothing, yet survived. Others, like the great auk penguin, the parrot known as the Carolina parakeet, and the most numerous bird species on Earth, the passenger pigeon, we lost forever.
As American naturalist Henry David Thoreau put things as he mourned the disappearance of “an entire heaven and an entire earth” in a journal entry he wrote in 1856, it seemed as if some demi-god had preceded him and plucked from the heavens all the best of the stars. In a more modern reprise of that sentiment, a 2018 National Academy of Sciences study called humanity’s wildlife losses since the colonial age, with its sacrifice of half‑a‑million years of distinctive, cumulative genetics, “close to a worst‑case scenario.” In 1889 the Smithsonian had listed just four American species it considered extinct: the great auk, Labrador duck, northern elephant seal, and Steller’s sea cow. By the 1930s that list was close to doubling.. But several charismatic birds seemed to wake the country. New Englanders watched the heath hen, an eastern prairie chicken, collapse to a single male who died in 1931, followed quickly by the extinction of the most colorful of all our birds, the Carolina parakeet. Our giant ivory‑bill woodpeckers had dwindled to a mere seven pairs in Louisiana. Trumpeter swans were on the cliff-edge, and a 1935 count indicated only 16 whooping cranes remaining.
What really moved the needle on saving American wildlife was the shocking decline of our national symbol, the bald eagle. Regarded by livestock interests as a predatory threat, eagles in the 1930s were on a short road to entire loss. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940 thus became the first step and model for later endangered species legislation.
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 assumed first-draft form in the 1960s as part of environmental regulations that famously cleaned the country’s air and water. Inspired by the eagle act and by an idea in ecology called “biocentrism” (a philosophy of broadening moral treatment to all life in the natural world), ” in 1965 Interior Secretary Stewart Udall compiled a list of species scientists believed in danger. For the original 1966 law, Fish and Wildlife came up with 83, a stunning increase since the 1930s. A subsequent 1969 law added fish, crustaceans, and invertebrates to endangered mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
An aspect of our history we need to remember is that half-a-century ago, saving the world was not political. It was Republican President Richard Nixon who delivered the rationale for the Endangered Species Act in a 1972 speech. “This is the environmental awakening,” Nixon told us. “Wild things constitute a treasure to be protected and cherished for all time.” They possessed “a higher right to exist—not granted to them by man, and not his to take away.” So late in 1973 Senator Pete Williams, a Democrat from New Jersey, introduced the grand ESA in Congress. It passed 92‑0 in the Senate and 390‑12 in the House.
Perhaps the ESA’s most significant feature was a requirement for the recovery of endangered species. But restoring bald eagles, peregrine falcons, California condors, and gray wolves wasn’t just governmental theater. The ESA derived its potency by relying entirely on best science, no matter the economic cost. As everyone who remembers the spotted owl controversy knows, however, economic interests wasted little time pushing back. Eventually that pushback gave us the category of “experimental, non-essential” endangered populations, which now allows ranchers and Wildlife Services agents to kill endangered gray wolves as economic threats.
There’s little question the ESA helped transform environmentalism into a partisan issue. Republicans convinced themselves that protecting a species' right to exist threatens the American economy. Today 41 states join the Fed in protecting endangered species, but the ones that don’t, like Wyoming, Alabama, and West Virginia, are among the reddest in the country. Democrats remain supporters: the Obama administration listed some 340 additional species. Trump, on the other hand, added a grand total of 20. Proclaiming a species endangered now takes more than a decade, and declaring one recovered, then turning its management over to the states, is fraught. The politics are evident today in states like Montana and Idaho, where recovered gray wolves have become symbolic avatars for environmentalists and coastal elites who tend to support endangered species policies.
Politics aside, the ESA’s successes are epic. Today 1,618 U.S. species (including plants) are on the threatened/endangered lists, primarily protected by the Fish and Wildlife Service, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries (another Nixon creation) safeguards 65 global species. So far the ESA has recovered 54 of America’s native species, including most famously our bald eagles. While the threat of climate change now actually has ESA officials considering re-location programs for some species, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, U.S. animals and plants fare significantly better than those almost anywhere else in the world. Not that this helps all those we lost before 1973.
We are still losing some of the most charismatic species in our ancient bestiary today. On September 29, 2021, the Fish and Wildlife Service declared America’s magnificent ivory‑bill extinct. Forever gone. Along with the announcement of 21 lost species in October 2023, the Service decided to give the ivory-bill a temporary reprieve pending more hope against hope study.
I found it difficult not to think of Thoreau when this made the news, especially his comment in 1857 that he was that American citizen whom he pitied. I have little doubt he would be cheered by the historical lesson of the ESA: that while we may be slow to the game, we humans can find it in ourselves to save the world after all.
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