January 8, 2011
By: Nick Engelfried
Since it was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1973, the Endangered Species Act has become the most important legal tool for protecting rare plants and animals in the United States. From the bald eagle to the whooping crane (pictured at left) to the gray wolf, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has helped bring hundreds of species back from the brink of extinction. Yet the ESA can only be used to save an imperiled animal or plant if that species had gone through an official listing process giving it protected status. Today environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity say hundreds of species in need of urgent help are being denied protection by delays in the listing process.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agencies that administer the Endangered Species Act, are charged with reviewing information about declining species and determining whether they in fact warrant protection under the ESA. Theoretically, species determined to be threatened or endangered are immediately granted several important protections designed to allow their populations to recover. Most importantly “critical habitat” needed for the species to survive is protected from development and other human disturbances. It is also illegal to kill or harm threatened and endangered species or remove them from the wild, except for authorized conservation purposes.
In practice however, many species that probably deserve protection are placed on a “candidate list,” where they may wait for full protection for years—depending on how fast the federal government processes new listings and on how many federal resources are allocated to species protection. This has always been part of the process for listing new threatened and endangered species, but in recent year the number of species on the candidate list has ballooned to well over two hundred, many of which have been waiting for protection for two decades or longer.
Part of the growth in the candidate list was caused by a backup of proposed species listings under the George W. Bush administration. Prior to George W. Bush, every US president who took office after the ESA became law protected more new species per year than the previous administration. In contrast the rate of listing new species was slower under the Bush administration than for any other president. While the Clinton administration listed sixty five species per year, the Bush administration averaged less than eight. In response the Center for Biological Diversity launched a lawsuit in 2005 arguing it was time to move protections forward for 225 species on the endangered species candidate list.
Under the Obama administration the rate of listing species has picked up to a degree, so far averaging twenty-six new listings per year. However at the same time the candidate list has grown to include 254 species. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, there’s a very real threat that species on waiting on the candidate list may go extinct before ever receiving the full protections that might have saved them. At least twenty-four species, subspecies, or genetically distinct populations have already gone extinct while waiting on the candidate list.
The Center for Biological Diversity has now launched an “Extinction Crisis” campaign focused on convincing the Obama administration to prioritize conservation and formally protect the 254 candidate plant and animal species. “We need to get [these species] on the endangered species list immediately,” says a statement from the Center, “because that’s the only way that killing them becomes illegal and the only way to save their habitat from logging, bulldozing, and other forms of destruction.”
An online petition to the Obama administration created as part of the campaign has so far accumulated close to 6,000 signatures.
Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service