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Background on Endangered Species

Endangered Species: The Facts

We are currently faced with the greatest rate of species extinction worldwide since the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Here are a few basic facts about the endangered species crisis:

• We are currently faced with the greatest rate of species extinction worldwide since the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

• More than 50,000 species become extinct worldwide each year. (That’s five to six each hour!)

• 15,589 known species are currently threatened with extinction.

• In the United States, more than 500 native plants varieties and animals have disappeared, - 250 of them since 1980.

• Species extinction rates are greatly accelerated by the effects of global climate change on the critical habitats and ecosystems of countless species. When the polar bear was listed as threatened in April of 2008, many environmentalists asserted that this is the first of many examples of a species directly threatened by the changing climate.

• Although species extinction is an important element of evolution the current species extinction rate exceeds this natural rate by 100 to 1,000 times.

• One in every four mammals, one in three amphibians, and one in eight birds, and almost half of all tortoises are facing faces a high risk of extinction in the near future.

• The leading threats to the diversity of species in the United States are habitat destruction and degradation, including that caused by the spread of invasive species. The U.S. has lost more than half of its wetlands, 95% of its virgin forests in the lower 48 states, and at least 80% of the coastline in the lower 48 states has been developed. For example:

The U.S. has lost more than half its wetlands.

The U.S. has lost 95 - 98% of its virgin forests in the lower 48 states.

At least 80% of the coastline in the lower 48 states has been developed.

• The loss of plant life has serious human consequences. 57% of the 150 most frequently prescribed medicines in the United States were originally derived from a plant or other natural product.

• If we fail to stop this crisis, fully one-quarter of the world’s species could be lost forever within 50 years.

Species and habitat loss is not just a threat to endangered plants and animals, but to human health, safety, and economic livelihood. According to a World Conservation Union report “ ”the monetary value of good and services provided by natural ecosystems (including gas regulation, waste treatment, and nutrient recycling) is estimated to amount to some 33 trillion dollars per year – nearly twice the global production resulting from human activities”

Learn more with our Background Information and Programmatic Resources Handout


Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)

Designated by President Eisenhower in 1960, and expanded by President Carter in 1980, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (the Refuge) stands as one of America’s last true wilderness areas.  The refuge, located on Alaska’s northeast coast, is roughly 19 million square acres (approximately the size of South Carolina) and contains numerous fragile arctic ecosystems including the habitats of caribou, polar bears, wolves, arctic foxes, and snow birds.  Perhaps the most notable ecosystem is found in the coastal plain, an area of about 1.5 million acres (about 8 percent of the refuge) along the Arctic Ocean.  This coastal plain is being targeted for oil exploration and drilling, even though it represents the last 5 percent of Alaska’s vast North Slope not already open to oil exploration and drilling.  The Refuge has enormous ecological, cultural, and spiritual significance. The coastal plain is the biological heart of the refuge, and is the only place in the United States where the full range of sub-arctic and arctic ecosystems are protected.  One species that would be particularly harmed by oil drilling in the coastal plain is the porcupine caribou, which relies on the coastal plain as a calving ground.  The Interior Department has estimated that drilling could result in a 20 to 40 percent decline in the coastal plain’s caribou population.  Drilling would also ravage the way of life of the indigenous Gwitch’in tribe, which lives on the coastal plain and which has used the porcupine caribou for food, clothing, and crafts for thousands of years. 

There is a lot of debate as to how much oil is actually in the refuge. Advocates of drilling, some of whom argue that such action is necessary to reduce American dependence on oil imports from the Middle East, cite studies that the oil in the Arctic refuge would equal the amount of oil we will import from Saudi Arabia for the next 30 years. Yet environmentalists assert that if oil is found in the Arctic refuge at all, it would only amount to a six-month supply. It is also important to note that it would take as much as 10 years of oil exploration before any oil could actually be extracted from the Arctic refuge.  Exploring alternative energy sources could more than make up for the cost and the benefit of drilling in the meantime.

Although there has been drilling in Alaska for years there currently is no drilling in the refuge. In 2006, President Bush tried to change this by including language about the drilling in his budget proposal.  Currently, President Obama has called for protecting ANWR, but numerous Senators and Representatives have pressured him to open it up in the mistaken notion that it will have an impact on today’s rising gas prices.

On December 20, 2016, President Obama signed an executive order permanately banning offshore drilling in large swaths of the Arcirc and the Atlantic seaboard, protecting 115 million acres of water. While this ban does not ban drilling in the Refuge, it is an important step in protecting an especially unique and vulnerable ecosystem.