Our planet is blessed with an abundance of diverse and marvelous species that are critical to sustaining our way of life. Protecting animals, sea life and other species is an important part of this committee’s work.
Be it America’s own national symbol, the bald eagle, or the majestic polar bear, the policies and choices we make today will impact future generations.
We are now in the midst of a mass extinction of species. There have been five previous mass extinctions in the Earth’s history, the last one happening 65 million years ago with the demise of most of the dinosaurs. Today, species are rapidly becoming endangered and going extinct because of human activities: habitat destruction, over-harvesting, pollution, the introduction of invasive species, and climate change. Species that are threatened or endangered by climate change include polar bears and many corals. Depending on how aggressively we reduce emissions of carbon pollution that causes climate change, 18 to 35% of species are projected to be “committed to extinction” by 2050 due to climate change.
Mass extinction is daunting, but we have reason for optimism. We can be hopeful because of recent successes in restoring species that were at the brink of extinction. When the bald eagle became the national bird of the United States in 1872, there were approximately 100,000 nesting pairs of eagles. Bald eagles became endangered due to habitat loss, hunting, loss of their natural prey, poisoning by the pesticide DDT, and from eating lead shot in waterfowl. By 1963, there were only 487 nesting pairs, and the bald eagle was in danger of extinction in the lower 48 States.
Today, the bald eagle has rebounded to approximately 10,000 nesting pairs. The bald eagle has been restored thanks to the banning of DDT, protection of its habitat and nests, and bans on shooting the bald eagle. We can thank the Endangered Species Act for the recovery of the bald eagle, as well as other iconic species like the American alligator, American peregrine falcon, and the gray whale in the Eastern North Pacific. The Endangered Species Act is one of our most cherished and respected environmental laws. It has enabled us to preserve and restore species that are our national and world heritage. The United States established the Endangered Species Act because Congress recognized that threatened and endangered plants and animals "are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people.”
The purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to conserve endangered and threatened species and the ecosystems that these species depend upon.
The process for listing species under the Endangered Species Act:
The power of the Endangered Species Act lies in the independent, scientific assesment that it requires. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) (for terrestrial species) and NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) (for species in the oceans) make determinations about whether a species should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
NMFS or FWS may initiate a “status review” of a domestic or foreign species if any US citizen petitions for it, if the agency believes a change in status is warranted, or as part of regular 5-year-reviews. Decisions about the status of a species are to be made solely “on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available.”
Criteria for listing
A species must be listed if it is threatened or endangered due to any of these five factors:
- present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range;
- overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes;
- disease or predation;
- inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms;
- other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.
Species listed under the Endangered Species Act, or being considered for a change in status, are identified on the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service websites. FWS provides a map of endangered species found in each U.S. state.
Habitat loss and degradation are leading causes of species becoming endangered. For species listed in the United States as endangered or threatened, critical habitat is to be designated. The United States does not designate critical habitat for foreign threatened or endangered species but we do cooperate with other countries for the preservation of their habitats. Critical habitats are specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species at the time of listing, if they contain physical or biological features essential to conservation, and those features may require special management considerations or protection. Critical habitat may also be specific areas outside the geographical area occupied by the species if the area itself is essential for conservation. Critical habitat designations are made by FWS or NMFS. They must be based on the best scientific information available, in an open public process, and within specific timeframes.
Species recovery plans are developed and implemented by the FWS or NMFS. These recovery plans include site-specific actions, objective and measurable criteria for delisting the species, and estimates of costs to implement the plan.
Even for species that have not yet recovered enough to be delisted, such as the grey wolf, there are benefits from our efforts toward restoration. The gray wolf once ranged across most of North America, Europe, and Asia. As a keystone predator, restoring the gray wolf through the Endangered Species Act is crucial to the long-term function of its ecosystems. Reintroducing wolves to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the 1990s has had far-reaching benefits. Fear of wolves prevented elk from using areas with aspen trees, which allowed the aspen to grow up, and this in turn has been good for songbirds and beavers. A 2005 survey of tourists by University of Montana scientists found that Yellowstone wolves brought an additional $35 million annually to Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Over 300,000 people were estimated to see wolves in Yellowstone in 2005.
The Endangered Species Act and Jobs
The Endangered Species Act makes it illegal to kill or otherwise “take” an endangered species without a permit, but these regulations do not shut down development. Private citizens can apply for “incidental take permits” if an endangered or threatened species may be taken incidentally to another legal activity. Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs) under section 10(a)(1)(B) of the Endangered Species Act provide for partnerships with non-Federal parties to conserve the ecosystems upon which listed species depend. HCPs are planning documents required as part of an application for an incidental take permit. They describe the anticipated effects of the proposed taking; how those impacts will be minimized, or mitigated; and how the HCP is to be funded. HCPs can apply to both listed and nonlisted species, including those that are candidates or have been proposed for listing. Conserving species before they are in danger of extinction or are likely to become so can also provide early benefits and prevent the need for listing. HCPs are typically in effect for many decades to provide the greatest benefits of functioning habitats, while permitting land management under stable regulations. This ESA regulatory assurance is particularly attractive to landowners with long-term investments, such as timber growers or water suppliers.
Safe Harbor Agreements enable nonfederal property owners to take voluntary measures to aid the recovery of listed species, and in return receive assurances that they will not need to take further action in the future.
If federal government agencies are considering activities that may affect a listed species, then they need to consult with FWS and NMFS to obtain a Biological Opinion about whether the federal actions would jeopardize the continued existence of a species or damage its critical habitat, including possible measures that would reduce the harm to threatened or endangered species while allowing the federal action to proceed (Section 7). Under the ESA, jeopardy occurs when an action is reasonably expected, directly or indirectly, to diminish a species’ numbers, reproduction, or distribution so that the likelihood of survival and recovery in the wild is appreciably reduced.
If FWS or NMFS determine that the federal action would likely jeopardize the listed species, then the Biological Opinion will also provide the consulting federal agency with reasonable and prudent alternative actions. These alternatives are often developed with input and assistance from the federal agency. Alternatives must:
- be consistent with the purpose of the proposed project
- be consistent with the federal agency’s legal authority and jurisdiction
- be economically and technically feasible
- in the opinion of FWS or NMFS, avoid harm to the species
If the FWS or NMFS determines that a proposed federal action would put a listed species in jeopardy, then the Federal agency has several options:
- implement one of the reasonable and prudent alternatives put forth by NMFS or FWS;
- modify the proposed project and consult again with NMFS or FWS;
- decide not to undertake (or fund, or authorize) the project;
- disagree with the opinion and proceed;
- apply for an exemption to the Endangered Species Committee.
Threats to the Endangered Species Act
The Endangered Species Act is sometimes blamed for problems that have another cause. The reason California farmers have not had enough water in recent years was because of lengthy drought, not because of protections for the endangered delta smelt. Jobs in California have been lost is due to the housing foreclosure crisis and global recession, not because of the delta smelt.
Wolves are being blamed for declines in big game prey for human hunters, and for predation on livestock. As prey seek to avoid getting eaten by wolves, this effect on their behavior may also make it more challenging for human hunters to find big game. However, for certain prey, wolf reintroduction and ESA protection is beneficial, because of how wolves interact with other predators. Where wolves have returned to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, coyote density is lower, and pronghorn fawns are four times more likely to survive (Berger, KM; Gese, EM; Berger, J. (2008) Indirect Effects and Traditional Trophic Cascades: A Test Involving Wolves, Coyotes, and Pronghorn. Ecology. 89;3;818-828). Additionally, wolves account for a small percentage of livestock losses. In 2005, the United States Department of Agriculture reported that deaths due to wolves were equal to one tenth of one percent of cattle losses. According to the state of Montana, wolves took 700 sheep in 2009, about one percent of total losses. Wolves took slightly more sheep than the number taken by eagles (600), fewer than those killed by dogs (1,300), and far fewer than bad weather (13,500).