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'Whatever the cost is, we will protect them': Marking 50 years of Endangered Species Act

When the Endangered Species Act was passed, fewer than 50 whooping cranes existed in the wild.

In Arizona, the list of animals facing extinction included the Apache trout, a native of White Mountain streams, the California condor and the Mexican gray wolf. The growing list of endangered animals pushed Congress to take action, and the measure passed unanimously in the Senate. Just four members of the House voted against it.

The act was signed by President [Richard] Nixon 50 years ago. Although it frequently causes controversy, it has spared more than 1,600 animals from extinction and continues to remain popular with a majority of the American public.

“It was a very different period of time,” said Lowell Baier, an attorney and author who has written extensively on the act. “The Congress met five days a week, not three. And they stayed in town on the weekends, and they worked together, and they played together. They played golf and tennis and cards and that sort of thing.”

Americans watched as a number of species faced being wiped off the face of the planet.

“The urgency was accelerated because there were so many species going totally extinct,” Baier said.

'This stood for all species'

But the bipartisan spirit didn’t last. The act faced its first major test when biologists discovered a small fish called the snail darter in the Little Tennessee River.

The government had already built a number of dams in the region. Locals said a new dam wasn’t necessary. It was pork barrel politics. They took their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which said the intent of the law was clear.

“The Supreme Court said all species that are at risk of extinction, shall be protected at any cost. Whatever the cost is, we will protect them,” Baier said.

Some in Congress started to backpedal and withdraw their support for the act. They told constituents they thought they had voted to protect animals like the grizzly, the eagle and the bison, species sometimes referred to as charismatic megafauna. Baier says he has read all of the testimony and sat in on some hearings while Congress discussed the legislation.

“And Congress was very thorough, in looking at the evidence before them. They knew, perfectly well, that this stood for all species, all species regardless of size. And so it was an easy copout for them to say, oh gee whiz, we thought it was only for megafauna,” Baier said.

Lack of funding for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Hands hold an Apache trout
The Apache trout is Arizona’s state fish, and it only exists in a small part Arizona near Pinetop. It is a threatened species; however, fighting both climate change and other fish species.

Since then, the act has faced a number of legal challenges.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, frequently the lead agency in carrying out the act, is often the target of those lawsuits. Tim Preso, an attorney for Earthjustice, said he spent 20 years in litigation, trying to convince the agency to list the wolverine as endangered, which it did late last month.

“There are some great people at Fish and Wildlife, and they do great things for imperiled wildlife and so we’re excited about this new direction that offers the hope that they’ll apply some of that expertise and their impressive abilities on behalf of the wolverine,” Preso said.

He says one reason Fish and Wildlife faces legal challenges is because it lacks funding.

“Well certainly the agency doesn’t have nearly the resources that it needs to take the actions that our imperiled wildlife need to survive, and that’s a constant fight. But politics plays a big role in this. It’s supposed to be a process driven by science and biology, but too often we find that politics plays a big role,” Preso said.

Preso said that although the act has saved a number of animals from extinction, it’s far from perfect.

“And when they’ve made a political decision sometimes the only way to get them back on course is to ask a judge to enforce the rule that they follow the science,” Preso said.

New challenges like climate change

Shaula Hedwall, of Fish and Wildlife, said the agency does its best to follow the science.

“We try to serve all the publics, which is an impossible mission, right? You can’t make everyone happy at every point, and I don’t mean that we’re trying to make people happy per se, but I’m saying that, you know, we are going to make decisions that not everyone is going to like,” Hedwall said.

The agency works closely with other federal agencies, such as the Forest Service, as well as state wildlife agencies. It also works with non-government organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club and even the Center for Biological Diversity, a group it frequently faces in court.

“That conflict is inherent in any relationship,” Hedwall said.

The world has changed since the act was passed, with climate change and invasive species jumping into the mix of environmental challenges. At times, Hedwall says, those changes have also brought groups together, because the global nature of climate change can transcend local politics.

Balancing 'all the publics'

Mary Katherine Ray, of the Sierra Club, recalls thinking about the act recently, and one of its success stories.

“I saw a bald eagle flying. It was right over the highway. And I remember thinking, you know, if not for the Endangered Species Act, that experience would not have happened,” she said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service tries to get local input when it comes up with recovery plans.

But which locals get the most say? State wildlife agencies? Ranchers? Hikers? They all have a say, and fierce opinions. In the 1990s, all of those interests clashed over the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf in the Southwest.

“If you read it carefully, the cooperation with the states is supposed to be in the service of implementing the act. It doesn’t give the states any particular authority, it just requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to coordinate with the state agencies,” said Dave Parsons, a retired Fish and Wildlife biologist. He says when the agency asked state game and fish agencies and ranchers about the wolf reintroduction, it struggled to get local support.

“The short of the story is that the states only wanted Mexican wolf recovery to happen on the White Sands Missile Range,” Parsons said.

He says local politics took over the process.

“And I was basically given verbal orders by bosses that I had to write an Environmental Impact Statement that in some way would make White Sands Missile Range look like the best place for wolves,” he said.

But the science wouldn’t support that. So he wrote a report that said the best habitat was in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona high country. He had to thread a political needle to get it through, placing his recommendations before Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who approved them.

605 attempts to reduce Endangered Species Act

But politics is not the only thing that gets in the way of recovery. Baier said restoring wildlife populations is difficult and expensive, something that Congress didn’t take into account when it passed the act.

“It takes employees to do that. Trained biologists, field people and so forth. And the Congress in ’73 appropriated some money, but they didn’t have a real concept then, nor did the scientists then, as to what it was going to cost America to protect what we have out there,” he said.

Getting those employees takes money.

“The Congress has been told repeatedly every year, that we are short on funding and we’re losing the battle of saving our species because we don’t have enough people out there handling our endangered species,” Baier said.

In fact, some members of Congress work against the process.

“In the last 25 years, there have been 605 attempts in the Congress to either dumb down or reduce the power of the Endangered Species Act or repeal it entirely — 605 in the last 25 years,” he said.

Looking ahead

Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, has introduced legislation that would give the agency more resources. It’s called Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, and it has stalled in committee. Baier says supporting the Endangered Species Act will become even more important in the next half century.

“Fifty years ago, they had not anticipated climate change. They had not anticipated invasive species,” Baier said.

With Congress in a state of perpetual gridlock, it seems unlikely Heinrich’s bill will pass any time soon. But Baier said Americans continue to support the Endangered Species Act.

“What’s heartening to me is that the American public has stood up and said, ‘leave it alone,’" he said.

Some researchers say the Earth has entered the sixth major extinction in the history of the planet, an event on par with the passing of the dinosaurs. If that’s the case, the act will become even more important in the years to come.

“So the one bright spot is that the American public has stood firm for 50 years in supporting that act. And even more recently. And they’re very loud about it, thank God,” Baier said.

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Ron Dungan was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2020 to 2024.