The Future Looks Brighter for 757 Species

Conservationists are celebrating a legal victory achieved earlier this month that moves 757 declining plant and animal species and subspecies closer to receiving protection under the US Endangered Species Act.  Under a settlement reached on July 12th between the Center for Biological Diversity and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US government will be required to decide by 2018 whether these hundreds of creatures deserve the law’s protection.

“The Endangered Species Act is America’s strongest environmental law and surest way to save species threatened with extinction,” says a Center for Biological Diversity web page devoted to the legal settlement.  “The agreement caps a decade-long effort by the Center’s scientists, attorneys, and activists, to safeguard 1,000 of America’s most imperiled, least protected species.”    

Species moving closer to protection as a result of the agreement range from the huge Pacific walrus—imperiled by climate change and oil drilling—to tiny invertebrates known as springsnails whose habitat in the Great Basin desert is threatened by water diversion schemes.  Other species and subspecies on the list include the Mexican gray wolf, American wolverine, black-footed albatross, and hundreds of rare fish and other aquatic species.   

“Today’s agreement will fast-track protection for 757 of America’s most imperiled but least protected species,” said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity.  Suckling added that species on the list like “The walrus, wolverine, golden trout, and Miami blue butterfly will go extinct if we don’t take action right away to save them.”

For years organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity have argued in court that hundreds of declining plants and animals are not receiving the protection they need in order for their populations to recover.  Though they are clearly being put at risk by human activities, they have not yet been listed under the Endangered Species Act and given the protection such a listing would entail. 

The most important wildlife protection law in the United States, the modern version of the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973 to prevent the extinction of rare plants and animals threatened by habitat destruction, pollution, and over-harvesting.  Once species are listed under the Act, government resources are allocated to help ensure they make a full recovery. 

Most important among the protections a listed species receives is the designation of “critical habitat.”  Critical habitat is the area of land or water which scientists have determined a rare plant or animal needs in order to make a recovery to a stable population.  Though development is not necessarily precluded within critical habitat, projects likely to impact the listed species’ survival are restricted or forbidden. 

Since its passage by Congress nearly forty years ago, the Endangered Species Act has helped dozens of rare plants and animals recover to healthy populations, while staving off extinction for hundreds of others now making progress toward a full recovery.  Animals like the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon have made dramatic comebacks from the brink of extinction, partly due to protection they received under the Endangered Species Act.

Yet because every new species listed means more time and money agencies have to spend on wildlife conservation, government officials have been slow to list hundreds more creatures which environmentalists believe deserve protection.  This month’s agreement between conservationists and the Fish and Wildlife Service—the agency that enforces protections for freshwater and land-dwelling species—moves 757 plants and animals one step closer to protection. 

Though the settlement doesn’t guarantee all these species will be listed under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service must formally consider each one and assess the need for protections.  For hundreds of species and subspecies, this consideration process will begin later this year.  The last of the decisions required under the settlement will be concluded by 2018.

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