We’re All Endangered Now

The Endangered Species Act will turn 40 soon, and it’s experiencing something of a midlife crisis.

When he signed the ESA into law in 1973, President Nixon praised the act for protecting “an irreplaceable part of our national heritage – threatened wildlife.” At the time, the bald eagle was down to fewer than 500 breeding pairs. Other beloved species – the whooping crane, the gray whale, the peregrine falcon – were also on the brink of extinction. The new law provided legal protections for those animals as well as the places they lived. In many cases, the act has worked as intended. Dozens of species have recovered.

But in the epoch of climate change events appear to have overtaken the ESA. Environmentalists, for the most part, are preoccupied with global warming and don’t focus on individual flora and fauna as they once did. The climate threat appears to have overwhelmed the strength of the law. It is no longer just logging in a certain forest tract or use of a given pesticide that endangers species. They must also grapple with the asymmetrical dangers of climate chaos: warming, sure, and along with it the loss of prey, or the appearance of new predators, or the disappearance of their only habitat.

In an effort to respond to the new reality, some green groups have launched a what they call a “bioblitz,” besieging the US Fish and Wildlife Service with petitions calling for plants and animals to be placed on the endangered species list. Environmental organizations have filed requests for more than 1,200 species during the last four years; by comparison, the previous decade saw an average of 20 petitions annually. Federal wildlife agents have pushed back and, complaining that they are overburdened, are asking Congress to cap how much effort they can spend on reviewing petitions. In his article revisiting the plight of the northern spotted owl (“Last Stand,” this issue), Eric Wagner perfectly sums up the dilemma: “Putting a halt to the logging of a particular age of tree on so many acres of land is one thing. Trying to compel the overhaul of an economy lubricated almost entirely by fossil fuels for the sake of nanook? Quite another.”

If anything, that’s an understatement. The Fish and Wildlife Service is in no position to determine how a new coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania will impact the California pika or the whitebark pines of Colorado.

Which isn’t to say the ESA doesn’t matter anymore. Quite the contrary: As we bulldoze toward the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history, the law is more important than ever. But if it’s going to work, it needs to be updated – or rethought. Protecting individual species is no longer sufficient (if it ever was). Now, we need to protect whole classes of species and entire ecosystems, as the Obama administration recently did when, to its credit, it listed a group of 48 Hawaiian birds and plants.

By acknowledging nature’s right to exist, the ESA represented a watershed in ecological thought. If we can adapt the ESA to the challenges of global warming, it will bring the law full circle. Using the act to address climate change can be the ultimate expression of ecological solidarity: In defending other species’ intrinsic rights, we also defend our own.

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