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The Risk of Endangered Species Act Reform

The Risk of Endangered Species Act Reform

Endangered gray wolf

In 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law. The legislation laid out guidelines for a species to be deemed endangered or threatened, and called upon the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service to designate specific areas as critical habitat zones. A critical habitat zone is an area which contains physical or biological features considered essential to conservation. In order for a species to be considered endangered it must be “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range,” and in order to be labeled threatened it must be “likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future.”

Since 1973, the act has protected over 227 plants and animals from extinction, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Further, it has been over 99 percent successful in preventing extinction. Additionally, in its 44th year, only ten protected species have gone extinct, eight of which were likely extinct before the law’s passage. The simple fact is the law is working.

So, why are leaders in Congress seeking to amend a law with such a high success rate?

In January, the Listing Reform Act (H.R. 717) was introduced by Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), which would amend the original law and require review of the economic cost of protecting “threatened” species. Once a species is precluded from petition it can only be reconsidered if there is the possibility of extinction of the species and if “alternative actions are possible other than those resulting in significant, cumulative economic effects.”  The problem with this notion is that the only way a species could be listed as threatened in the first place is if it is likely to become endangered in the near future.

On the Senate side, John Barrasso (R-WY), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, held a hearing on February 15th with the similar purpose of “modernizing” the act. He gave the following statement: “…ranchers, and other stakeholders are all making it clear that the Endangered Species Act is not working today. A major goal of the Endangered Species Act is the recovery of species to the point that protection under the statute is no longer necessary… Of 1,652 species of animals and plants in the U.S. listed as either endangered or threatened since the law was passed in 1973, only 47 species have been delisted due to recovery of the species…In other words, the Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that less than 3 percent of species in the United States under the protection of the Endangered Species Act have recovered sufficiently to no longer necessitate the protection of the statute.”

Concerns about the Endangered Species Act that motivate this amendment include: the law hinders economic progress in the drilling, logging, and mining industry.  The act also calls for a higher threshold to justify the federal government invoking action on privately owned land.

However, in a time when we face the greatest rate of species extinction since the time of the dinosaurs, the Endangered Species Act is an important barrier to escalated loss of species. We must prioritize the wellbeing of our planet over potential financial gain. Moreover, according to a World Conservation Union report: “Species and habitat loss is not just a threat to endangered plants and animals, but to human health, safety, and economic livelihood.”

Jewish values teach that we must stand up and fight for those who cannot take action themselves. Our work protecting endangered species is the way we can maintain the Covenant God made with Noah, "and with [his children] after him, and with every living creature...of the birds, of the cattle, and of every wild animal of the earth with you." (Genesis 9:9).

Learn more about the Endangered Species Act and how you can take action by visiting the RAC’s issue page on the environment.

Jared Diamond is a rising sophomore in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences at the George Washington University. This summer, he interned at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in the legislative department. 

Published: 8/01/2017

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