As the Endangered Species act turned 50, 44k species face climate-driven extinction

  • Published on January 5th, 2024

December 28 marked the 50th birthday of the signing of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It was a solidly bipartisan act of Congress signed by a president desperate for distraction as he perched on the cusp of unprecedented public humiliation. In the view of many people who believe the ESA was a crucial move in the right direction, it has been wildly successful. Species on the brink have been kept from going extinct and others kept from becoming endangered in the first place.

Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas), like this one from the Eastern Pacific, are on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List of endangered species.
Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas), like this one from the Eastern Pacific, are on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of endangered species. (Photo by NOAA)

By Meteor Blades

The Democratic-Republican coming together that created the act, however, has long since come apart. The dominant wing of the GOP since Ronald Reagan was in charge has sought to take a machete to a multitude of environmental regulations. But the ESA has been a tough nut for its foes to crack. Not for lack of trying various means, typically cutting funding and excluding certain species from the protection the act was designed to deliver. They’ve made it less effective than it could and should be.

The reason Republicans want to cripple it is no mystery. Economics. The ESA has put locational and other limits on what certain industries—including mining, drilling, and logging—are allowed. Those industries, all of them with horrible histories of exploit-and-abandon, typically leaving a mess for the taxpayers to cover, complain that the new regulations hamper how they do their work. Which is true. That’s the point. Do it right. Do it safely. Do it so this or that species doesn’t get wiped out as a result of operations.

But there’s an ideological reason for the opposition, too. ESA critics claim that its actions constitute federal overreach. It’s the same claim made since the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s. States’ rights. They make the same claim about regulations handled by the Department of Interior and Environmental Protection Agency, as well as Department of Energy. It’s a display of the same tunnel vision that has politicians trying to shrink national monuments and opposing President Joe Biden’s 30 by 30 plan, that is, getting 30% of the nation’s land and water conserved by 2030. They probably needn’t worry. That’s a super-ambitious goal, which would certainly be lovely to achieve. But these ideologues are against the whole concept on principle.

While the ESA has succeeded in many instances, it also has been too relaxed. For instance, when Defenders of Wildlife scrutinized more than 88,000 consultations on federal actions, the organization found that “no project was stopped or extensively altered” due to consideration under the ESA. Jason Mark makes an excellent point at Sierra magazine regarding the need for better ESA enforcement.

The half-century mark for the ESA comes just as the International Union for Conservation of Nature issued their updated endangered species list. It’s short on good news. Another 2,000 species have been added to the 42,000 already on the Red List of Threatened Species, which tracks biodiversity around the globe. Craig Hilton-Taylor, head of the Red List unit at the IUCN, told the Associated Press, “Species around the world are under huge pressure. So no matter where you look, the numbers of threatened species are rising.”

One culprit: climate change is said to be making matters worse for 6,700 species threatened with extinction. One example is the endangered Central South Pacific and East Pacific green turtle, like the one pictured in the lead photo. Fewer green turtles are hatching as rising seas flood their beach nests. Warmer water alters the food chain in general and can hurt the seagrasses turtles feed on.

In another troubling example, this time from the British Ecological Society, a study of herbivorous insects covering 34 years of data found that 60% of the species are having a difficult time keeping pace with the plants they depend on as a result of climate change advancing “key seasonal timings (phenology), such as plant blooming or insect emergence, earlier in the year, at different rates.” Responding to environmental circumstances, plants were found to be adjusting their seasonal timings four times faster than insects.

Yanru Huang, a Ph.D. student at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences and University of Oxford, who will be presenting the research at the BES Annual Meeting said, “The mismatch between plant and insects phenology we observe in our study poses a significant threat to both ecosystems and our livelihoods. We could soon see the extinction of species that depend on each other and even the collapse of the food-web network.”

Dr. Roberto Salguero-Gómez, Associate Professor in Ecology at the Department of Biology University of Oxford and senior author of this work, said, “A mismatch in seasonal timings doesn’t just impact biodiversity, but us too. Given 84% of the crops in Europe directly depend on insects for pollination, it’s clear how much we depend on the ecosystem services that insects provide.

Almost a decade ago, Elizabeth Kolbert’s elegantly scary Sixth Extinction was published. Those numbers above that the IUCN put out look benign next to the potential Kolbert describes. The mass extinction of our era is, like those of the past, a planetary phenomenon, so the Endangered Species Act is obviously only a piece of what needs doing on the political front. And it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Jason Mark concludes:

On the ESA’s 50th birthday, then, its many accomplishments need to be set alongside the daunting tally of all the species that remain at risk, especially those that rarely appear in glossy photographs: the arroyo toad, the bog turtle, the dwarf wedgemussel, the El Segundo blue butterfly. Protecting the uncelebrated along with the charismatic takes much more than big words on paper. It requires a citizens’ movement demanding that elected representatives fund ESA enforcement and insisting that agency officials stand up to those who would put profits before living beings. To keep more species from falling into the abyss of extinction, we’ll need to make sure that the radical aspirations of the Endangered Species Act are matched by radical grassroots action.

The extinction crisis is the climate crisis’ conjoined twin. They are integral to one another and must of necessity be dealt with jointly. I know it’s a hoary cliché to say that everything is connected, but yeah, everything is.

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(Originally appeared at DailyKos)

About the Author

Meteor Blades is a writer and contributing editor at DailyKos. He believes there is something profoundly wrong with our system. - the unchecked accumulation of wealth and power into the hands of a very small group of corporate business interests has contributed to the wholesale corruption of our political system. For an understanding about the level of corruption in our country, he encourages you to view these two PBS documentaries: (1). ,The Untouchables; (2) The United States of ALEC.

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