by Fran Silverman
“How do you put a price on a bald eagle? Or a striped bass. Or clean air or clean water?” asked Connecticut’s Attorney General William Tong last fall in announcing the state had joined with 16 others, the District of Colombia and the City of New York to challenge the Trump Administration’s rollback of regulations implementing the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
“But they are trying to. They are trying to prioritize their view of economic value over the quality and value of our environment.”
Tong explained that the administration’s new rules will allow officials to decrease the amount of habitat threatened and endangered animals require to survive and remove tools used by scientists to predict future harm to species as a result of climate change. The administration will also be allowed to reveal the financial burden of protecting wildlife for the first time since the ESA was signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1973.
Friends of Animals (FoA), which is headquartered in Connecticut, joined Tong on the porch of the Riverfront Boathouse in Hartford for his announcement about the litigation. We had spearheaded a letter with several other Connecticut environmental and animal advocacy groups urging Tong to join the multi-state lawsuit challenging the attack on the ESA. Why? Because our work depends on it.
“The ESA is the only hope we currently have of preventing what some believe may be a complete collapse of global biodiversity by the end of this century,” said Michael Harris, director of FoA’s Wildlife Law Program.
“And now, that law has been put under the knife by the Trump administration. We not only support the lawsuit, but we are moving full steam ahead to use the ESA to expand protection for imperiled species wherever they reside.”
FoA is currently fighting to get the queen conch, Pryor Mountain wild horses, devil ray, long-tailed chinchilla and three tortoise species listed under the ESA. Threatened and endangered animals listed under the ESA are entitled to these vital benefits: protection from being jeopardized by federal activities; protection of critical habitat; restrictions on killing and trade; a requirement that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service develop and implement recovery plans for listed species under U.S. jurisdiction; authorization to seek land purchases or exchanges for important habitat; and federal aid to state conservation departments with cooperative endangered species agreements.
This is not the first time FoA has witnessed attempts by officials to blow a massive hole through the ESA. In 2017, FoA intervened and reversed a court decision that sought to strip the Utah prairie dog of federal protection under the ESA.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners had challenged FWS’ decision to list the animals as a threatened species because it restricted what the landowners could do regarding managing the species on private land.
“On display in that case is the fundamental dispute over the value of America’s natural heritage,” Harris said.
“A minority of private property owners and some state governments appear to view wildlife as being unworthy of protection unless animals can be reduced to mere ‘commodities.’ In their view, if an animal cannot be sold or traded, then it is no more than a mere pest to be eradicated to make way for human development. On the other side, FoA, numerous scientists and millions of Americans recognize that protection of all members of the North American biota—from the smallest fungi to the greatest of mammals—is essential to biodiversity.”
WORTH THE WAIT
Harris pointed out that the process of protecting species under the ESA can be long and frustrating, but worth the wait.
“When protective status is finally achieved for a particular species, there is nothing more satisfying than knowing that our hard work can actually lead to these animals being saved from further human exploitation,” he said.
FoA’s hard work for the scalloped hammerhead shark made history when it became the first species of shark ever to be protected by the ESA. The final rule to list four of the existing six distinct population segments of scalloped hammerhead sharks as threatened or endangered occurred in 2014 and came in response to our 2011 petition submitted with WildEarth Guardians. Scalloped hammerheads were dwindling because they were killed for their meat and fins, which were used in highly controversial shark-fin soup.
They were also accidentally caught and killed during fishing targeting other species. Likewise, the demand for sturgeon meat and caviar was the single largest cause of sturgeon population collapses.
However, five sturgeon species were listed as endangered under the ESA in 2014 in response to a 2012 petition filed by FoA and WildEarth Guardians. Listing makes the importation, selling or possession of caviar or meat from any of these sturgeon species illegal in the U.S., with a few exceptions for products from animals in captivity.
These fish have survived more than 200 million years in rivers and seas in Europe and Asia, and it was gratifying to see that National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recognized they are worth more than the sum of their parts.
FIGHTING FOR OUR FEATHERED FRIENDS
In another ESA battle, FoA persevered for more than a decade to secure protections for two populations of the scarlet macaw. The ruling—which happened after a petition was filed in 2008 followed by two lawsuits—took effect March 28, 2019 and lists the northern population as endangered and the southern subspecies as threatened.
Brilliantly colored, scarlet macaws live in tropical humid rainforests ranging from northern Colombia through Central America and have faced ongoing threats from human development and deforestation, climate change and poachers who target them for the exotic pet trade. (Unfortunately, some subspecies of scarlet macaws can still be traded commercially without an ESA permit.)
And nine years ago, FoA marked a milestone in its efforts to combat the global bird trade as all members of three parrot species gained protection under the ESA after a petition was filed by FoA and WildEarth Guardians.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Philippine cockatoo and the yellow-crested cockatoo (including all four subspecies) as “endangered” and the white cockatoo as “threatened” due to a variety of threats, including the illegal collection of these attractive birds from the wild for the pet trade.
“It is fitting that those who have profited from caging these beautiful birds will now face some ‘cage time’ themselves,” Harris said.
However, FWS included a special rule that allows continued import, export or interstate commerce of white cockatoos held in captivity prior to the listing date and of captive-bred birds. For many species exploited for commercial purposes, legal trade creates cover for illegal trade and makes enforcement more difficult.
KEEP THE ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT INTACT
For more than 45 years, the ESA has protected thousands of threatened species, including the bald eagle, California condor, grizzly bear and humpback whale. More than 99% of plants and animals listed under the act survive today. The law is important as a bulwark against the current extinction crisis; plants and animals are disappearing at a rate much higher than the natural rate of extinction due to human activities.
Scientists estimate that 227 species would have gone extinct if not for ESA listings. Listing species with a global distribution can protect the species domestically and help the U.S. focus its resources toward enforcement of international regulation and recovery of the species. The states involved in the recent lawsuit against the Trump Administration are also concerned by FWS’ and the NMFS’ departure from the longstanding, conservation-based agency policy of providing the same level of protection to threatened species afforded to endangered species, which is necessary to prevent a species from becoming endangered.
“I don’t relish having to do this work,” Tong said at the press conference.
“We shouldn’t be standing here today. I think a lot of us thought we settled this question a long time ago— that we have a duty to be good stewards and good partners to our environment. And to our world and to our wildlife who we share this world with.
“It’s deeply disturbing to me that the President of the United States has used the power of the regulatory process to attack endangered species, to make protection of endangered species contingent on their economic value.”