WHEN one of the hallmark successes of the Endangered Species Act is in your own backyard and happens to serve as the symbol of the United States, the thought of dismantling the 1973 law, by way of revisions recently proposed by the Trump administration, is painful to contemplate.
In the 1930s, there were an estimated 600 to 800 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the Chesapeake Bay region, according to research by the Chesapeake Bay Program. After World War II, the pesticide DDT was developed and sold for routine agricultural and residential garden use. The chemical quickly infiltrated the natural food chain.
By the early 1970s, the bald eagle population living along the Bay and its tributaries plummeted to just 60 pairs. DDT, given broad public awareness by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring,” was blamed for disrupting the eagle’s reproductive process.
In 1972, DDT was banned. Based largely on the damage done by this single toxic chemical, the Endangered Species Act was signed into law by Republican President Richard M. Nixon in 1973. The ESA protects animal and plant species from extinction, for whatever reason and at whatever cost, when their habitats are threatened.
Because the protection process is expensive and time-consuming, and the manner and level of protection various species receive is deemed arbitrary by the law’s critics, Nixon’s signature was hardly dry before the law came under attack by lawmakers, developers and landowners who saw it as impeding economic growth.
But by the 1970s, Americans were waking up to the importance of protecting the environment. The Clean Air Act had already passed in 1963 as the damage industrial and automotive emissions could do became apparent. And once again, it was Nixon who signed the Clean Water Act into law in 1972.
The Endangered Species Act went hand-in-hand with the environmental conservation movement. By the early 2000s, bald eagle breeding pairs had rebounded to 1930 levels around the Chesapeake. In 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the endangered list, and by 2016, the number of pairs in the region reached 2,000.
Caledon State Park in King George County is one of the best places in Virginia to see bald eagles.
Other species the law is credited with saving from extinction include the grizzly bear, the peregrine falcon, the humpback whale, the Florida manatee, the whooping crane and the Tennessee purple coneflower.
With climate change making many areas uninhabitable by plant and animal species that have thrived in them for eons, this effort to undo the law is particularly ill-timed. What we learn now from protecting endangered species could help prevent humankind itself from becoming a candidate for the endangered list.
For the sake of useful dialog, maybe there is a species whose value is outweighed by the cost of saving it or by the importance of a project in which it stands in the way. A United Nations report earlier this year suggested that some 1 million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction at a record-setting pace. Honestly, not all of them can or will be saved.
The existing law stipulates that species are judged eligible or ineligible for the endangered list. Once a species is added, the effort to save it, using scientific data and research, is done “without consideration for the economic impacts.”
If you could go back and figure out how much it cost to save the bald eagle, how much would be too much? At what point does an industry become more important than the grizzly bear? Is a tiny fish expendable if its disappearance would threaten every successive fish above it in the food chain?
President Trump’s proposed revisions to the ESA will no doubt face legal action by environmental groups. Part of the problem is his administration’s poor track record on environmental issues. Trump, along with his first Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, and Pruitt’s successor, Andrew Wheeler, have tried repeatedly to defund the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. Prior to their EPA nominations, Pruitt’s and Wheeler’s careers were dedicated to undermining the EPA’s objectives.
Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a consensus foe of the environment who resigned in December under a cloud of agency corruption, originally prepared the ESA revisions for the president before his departure. Zinke also revoked a ban on the use of lead bullets by hunters on wildlife refuges. Lead ammunition was a listed as a secondary threat to bald eagles after DDT because eagles would eat wildfowl carrion shot and left behind by hunters.
Messing with the Endangered Species Act at all is a difficult argument to make, even in an era when the cost of things is always on the table.