We cannot turn our back on the Endangered Species Act after 50 years of preventing extinction

We cannot turn our back on the Endangered Species Act after 50 years of preventing extinction

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Fifty years ago, Republicans and Democrats in both chambers came together in an inspirational show of bipartisanship to pass one of our nation’s most respected and successful conservation laws: the Endangered Species Act. It is a law that memorializes our nation’s responsibility to be good stewards of our natural heritage and to protect it for future generations. It is a law that prioritizes saving species and the wondrous ecosystems they call home for the betterment of all by using the best available science.   

Since its enactment in 1973, the ESA has prevented the extinction of virtually all species under its protection. From gray wolves howling at the moon, to bald eagles soaring above us, to black footed ferrets scampering across the plains, to sea otters playing along the coast, the ESA has put so many species on the road to recovery. It directs resource managers to protect species and the habitats they depend on, and brings scientists, communities and industry stakeholders to partner together to deliver recovery plans for each species. Without the work directed by the ESA, we wouldn’t be able to celebrate red wolves in the wild nor would we be able to help others, like Cook Inlet belugas and polar bears, from slipping into extinction.  

Tragically, too many members of Congress have begun to either turn their backs on this life-saving law or actively work to destroy the basic tenets that have enabled its success. And they are doing so at a time when we most need the ESA. Just in the 118th Congress, political overreaches to strip protections from deeply imperiled species such as the lesser-prairie chicken, the northern long-eared bat, and the dunes sagebrush lizard have become commonplace in both chambers. These efforts to undermine and politicize the ESA go against science-based decision-making by experts at the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service who have maintained the law’s integrity and effectiveness since its inception.   

The world is not the same as it was half a century ago, however, and the need for the ESA has never been greater. Chronic underfunding has severely impeded critically needed recovery actions for years. Today, we face immense threat in the United States and abroad from the intertwined biodiversity and climate crises. While leading scientists warn that 1 million species are at risk of extinction, we continue to watch vital habitat disappear before our eyes. From coral reefs to sagebrush shrub, higher temperatures, increased droughts and fire, more intense storms and floods, and heightened risk of diseases and pests push wildlife and critical habitat beyond what is sustainable.   

We are in a perilous position. But there is hope, because the American public overwhelmingly supports the ESA. That support — despite what has increasingly become a partisan issue in the halls of Congress — spans party lines throughout our country.   

Americans understand that we are inherently connected in the web of life and depend on healthy, biodiverse ecosystems for clean air, clean water, nutritious soils, and stable economies for our own well-being.   

In its 50 years, the Endangered Species Act has proven to be a strong, successful tool for saving imperiled species, and it must continue to be one. Congress, however, needs to better fund its implementation. As Americans dedicated to and charged with building the best future for our children, we must demand that Congress invest in and defend the ESA. Failure to do so in the face of extinction is not an option. We must meet the moment when wildlife and wild places need us, not bury our heads in the sand and hope for a different ending.  

Don Beyer represents Virginia’s 8th Distrct and Jamie Rappaport Clark is president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife.

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