Collin O’Mara, National Wildlife Federation President and CEO, reflects on 50 years of the Endangered Species Act
FIFTY YEARS AGO THIS DECEMBER, after years of work with bill sponsor U.S. Rep. John Dingell and tough negotiations with the Nixon administration, the National Wildlife Federation helped pass the modern Endangered Species Act. The law had a simple yet globally unprecedented objective: to protect imperiled species before they reached the brink of extinction by utilizing both regulatory protections and funding recovery efforts. As millions of Americans celebrate this 50th anniversary, we want to share a few thoughts:
The ESA prevents extinction. While extinction of some species is a natural part of our ecosystems, human activities have significantly accelerated the global loss of species to crisis levels—as much as 1,000 times the natural rate of extinctions. And yet nearly 99 percent of the more than 1,700 species ever listed as endangered or threatened in the United States under the ESA are still with us today—a remarkable and unparalleled global success of staving off extinction. This is why the ESA enjoys support from more than 80 percent of the American public.
Chronic underfunding impedes recovery. Of all the species listed under the ESA, only about 50 have fully recovered to the point where they no longer need federal protections. This is not the fault of the ESA but is due to a chronic lack of funding. There are shining examples of what’s possible. When I was secretary of natural resources in Delaware, we were part of an innovative partnership among federal and state agencies and private landowners that helped recover the Delmarva fox squirrel (above). We can replicate recovery successes and foster more collaboration on the ground, but we need Congress to invest.
At-risk species need earlier intervention. Beyond species already listed as endangered, a full one-third of all wildlife species in the nation are at heightened risk of extinction. States have identified more than 12,000 species of greatest conservation need. Just as in health care, preventive conservation efforts can cost effectively save species before they require ESA protections. We’re pushing hard for Congress to pass the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which will provide states, Tribes and territories with funding to recover species before they become endangered, so the ESA can focus on the most imperiled species, as was intended.
What’s next? The National Wildlife Federation and our affiliates are working hard to reauthorize and strengthen the ESA, including prioritizing how funding is spent based on science, accelerating development and enactment of species recovery plans, incentivizing private landowners and improving the process for recognizing when species are recovered. We are also forever vigilant in our defense of the law whenever legislative efforts to weaken it are introduced in Congress.
The ESA plays a vital role in not only saving at-risk wildlife and plant species but also maintaining the ecosystems upon which we all depend. As we celebrate this milestone, we hope you’ll join us to ensure the landmark legislation remains strong for the next half-century.
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