The Endangered Species Act at 40

Associate Professor Peter Alagona of UCSC. One of Alagona’s projects includes chronicling the history of the NRS. Image credit: The Sheet News

The U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) turned 40 this year. It’s a law that has been both lauded for saving species and excoriated for limiting development since the first day of its passage. UC Santa Barbara Professor of History and the Environment Peter Alagona discussed the mixed legacy of the ESA at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory Lecture Series May 21.

The following is an excerpt from an article by Katie Vane published in The Sheet News of Mammoth Lakes on May 17, 2013:

Dr. Alagona opened the lecture with a question to the audience: “who’s heard of environmental history?” he asked. By the crickets in the room, he had his answer. Dr. Alagona explained that his field, environmental history, emerged from the environmental movement in the 1960s and 70s as a study of environmental policies and practices over time. Environmental history focuses on social, political, and scientific approaches to the natural world.

The ESA offered a perfect example of an environmental policy within a historical context: “The landmark ESA passed in 1973 with nearly unanimous Congressional support,” he explained. “By the end of the 1970s, however, it became one of the country’s most controversial laws.” Much of that controversy stemmed from bitter struggles to classify, or resist classification, of endangered species. Dr. Alagona argued  that these “endangered species debates are as much about the politics of places as they are about the creatures that live there.”

The Endangered Species Act has a checkered history of protecting at-risk species such as the Mojave population of the desert tortoise. Image credit: NRS archives
The Endangered Species Act has a checkered history of protecting at-risk species such as the Mojave population of the desert tortoise. Image credit: NRS archives

Dr. Alagona proceeded to illuminate the history of species conservation in the United States, beginning with a debate between eighteenth century naturalists over whether species could even become extinct. “By the 1880s, it became abundantly clear that human actions, not just natural forces, could drive species to extinction,” he said, demonstrating with a sobering image, circa 1870, of a colossal pile of bison skulls in the American Southwest.

He pointed to another example, the California grizzly, noting that in 1848, the state boasted one grizzly to every 11 settlers. By the 1880s, California grizzlies were rare; the last recorded sighting of a grizzly was in 1924. “The decline of the grizzly helped inspire the State’s first grassroots conservation movement,” said Dr. Alagona.

Conservation, a concept crucial to the Endangered Species Act, “is an idea that [nature] reserves could be store houses for biological diversity,” he said. He dated the concept “from around 1880.” The notion of conservation expanded in the 1930s under the New Deal with the formation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Roosevelt’s “tree army,” which was intended to promote environmental conservation among other projects. “By the 1960s, the notion that habitat conservation should form some part of any environmental movement was widely accepted,” he said.

Today, conservation is one of the principle goals of the ESA, and one of its primary tools for protecting endangered species from extinction. The ESA requires a habitat conservation plan for any area inhabited by a species listed as threatened or endangered, should private citizens, Native American tribes, State, or Federal organizations wish to develop property in that area. Here in the Eastern Sierra, this requirement, along with requirements by California statutes like the California Environmental Quality Act, present a challenge to developers of renewable energy and others. That challenge is both good and bad, Dr. Alagona argued, and gets to the core of why the ESA remains controversial.

“Reserves are no panacea for complex social and ecological problems,” Dr. Alagona argued.

California, an area along with Arizona, the Desert Southwest, Florida, and the Southern Appalachians, of high biological diversity, has 14,000 protected areas of some kind, said Dr. Alagona. This land is set aside for the preservation of endangered or threatened species like the California golden eagle, San Joaquin kit fox, the Mojave population of the desert tortoise, and the mountain yellow-legged frog. California has the second highest number of endangered species, 303 listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the largest number of at risk species in the country, Dr. Alagona said.

So how has the ESA worked out for the endangered species it seeks to preserve?  Of the nearly 1500 species ever listed under the ESA, Dr. Alagona said, just 10, or 0.6%, have gone extinct. But only 29, or 1.9%, have been delisted due to recovery. “De-listing efforts have been controversial; how recovery is measured is not certain; not to mention, 40 years is not enough time to expect full recovery,” Dr. Alagona said. Nevertheless, he argued, while the ESA has done much to prevent the extinction of endangered species, “it has done much less to aid recovery.”

He noted the challenges of aiding the recovery of endangered species with complex habitat issues, offering the example of steelhead trout, listed as threatened and endangered all along the West Coast. “Many factors have effected the steelhead population, but none more than the loss of habitat due to dams,” he said. Of the 1400 named dams in California, most were built for a different kind of conservation: the conservation of water. Given the importance of water to this state, there is therefore no easy solution to the steelhead’s habitat problems.

Meanwhile, the desert tortoise, for an area the size of Massachusetts was set aside as protected habitat in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah, “has continued to decline due to complex, synergetic factors,” Dr. Alagona said. Some of these factors include disease, the introduction of exotic species, and climate change.

His final argument: the ESA represents a historic shift in our nation’s approach to protecting the environment. Yet, like any system of thought, it belongs to a particular historical period. After 40 years, he said, it’s time to reassess the policies and practices put forth by the ESA.

“The traditional approach to conservation starting in the 1930s has been to protect species by setting aside nature preserves,” he said. “It’s time to rethink the meaning of habitat, itself.” The future of conservation requires not just creating more habitats, he argued, but reconsidering ‘habitat’ “not so much as protected places, but as protected processes. This will require creating not just more habitats, but creating more sustainable landscapes.”