Friday, January 20, 2017

Endangered Species Act Under Threat From Congress

"When the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another Heaven and another Earth must pass before such a one can be again" - William Beebe

Dad Decorah near N2B
What is the Endangered Species Act? Signed into law by President Nixon in 1973, the ESA is the strongest and most important federal law protecting imperiled wildlife and plants. It has prevented hundreds of species from going extinct since it was enacted. Do you enjoy watching Mom and Dad Decorah or any other eagle families? Although they are no longer endangered - protections under the Act are supposed to recover species - the banning of DDT and the passage of the Endangered Species Act was critical to their survival.

Now the Endangered Species Act is under threat from some members of Congress, who see a chance to roll back its influence. “It has never been used for the rehabilitation of species. It’s been used for control of the land,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop. “We’ve missed the entire purpose of the Endangered Species Act. It has been hijacked.”

Bald eagles, peregrine falcons, brown pelicans, California condors, whooping cranes, Puerto Rican parrots, and spotted owls beg to differ with Congressman Bishop's assessment, as do grizzly bears, several species of whales, southern resident orcas, sea otters, gray wolves, and manatees. Unfortunately, recently extinct Carolina parakeets, ivory-billed woodpeckers, passenger pigeons, eskimo curlews, and dusky seaside sparrows are gone forever and thus unavailable for comment.

Peregrine falcon at Xcel Blackdog power plant
I had the privilege of visiting Chicago's Field Museum during a peregrine conference three years ago. Attendees were given a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum, including a look at their vast bird collection - lovingly preserved corpses of birds kept for study and remembrance. It was there that I got my only look at the Carolina parakeet and the ivory-billed woodpecker. Gone forever from life, the two species now exist only as study skins in museums. Had the United States not banned DDT and passed the Endangered Species Act, it is highly likely that peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and many other animals would have joined them, existing only as museum specimens and curiosities on film. However cherished their memories or lovingly preserved their corpses, they too would be gone, dead, extinct, lost. Forever.

Imagine life without them. I can't stand the thought.

Looking for proof of the Act's success? The Center for Biodiversity conducted an exhaustive analysis of bird recovery under the Endangered Species Act and found it has been extraordinarily successful in recovering imperiled birds. Eighty-five percent of bird populations in the continental United States increased or stabilized while protected by the Act, and the average population increase was 624 percent. It was believed that listed bird populations would need 63 years to recover, but several populations (including bald eagles and peregrine falcons) have recovered far more rapidly than expected. As mentioned earlier, peregrine falcons and bald eagles have both been removed from the list.
Dan Berger's notes. All of the Peregrines east of the Mississippi in the
surveys he made in the 1950s and early '60s. Not an exaggeration...this was it.
Habitat/land has long been part of the argument against the Endangered Species Act. Those who oppose the act tend to cite the subjection of humans to land use regulation; the restriction of activities like farming, lumbering, construction, and mining, and the lack of compensation to landowners impacted by endangered species. But there are also many untruths in their arguments. Contrary to their arguments:
  • The Endangered Species Act has recovered species.
  • Landowners won't lose their homes because an endangered species is on their property. 
  • Conservation groups and biologists do not just want money from the federal government. Folks, I have to tell you - conservation is the wrong field if your goal is money!
  • It does not kill jobs. Section 7 of the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) directs federal agencies to help conserve listed species. One way it does this is by requiring agencies to consult with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service to ensure that proposed federal actions won’t threaten a listed species’ survival. Between 2008 and 2015, 81,461 projects advanced without protections for wildlife, 6,382 advanced requiring only minor modifications for wildlife, 2 advanced requiring protections, and 0 were stopped. This seems to indicate that ESA could work even more effectively than it does now.
I don't understand the argument against preserving habitat. Animals can't live without it and so much is already gone. Why is it considered bad to preserve the 10% of Iowa that isn't under till? Or the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, which covers just 1.9% of Minnesota's total area? Does it really all need to be mined, timbered, and torn up for profit?

I believe in public/private collaborations such as ours and this shining example - how could I not, with what Bob called our 'unique marriage between industry and conservation'? I've seen the power that these relationships can have to secure habitat, change perceptions, and help species. But legislation and enforcement are also necessary, and the reforms being proposed right now are aimed at the destruction of the Act, not its betterment. For the sake of the birds we watch and love, please stand up and say "No" to any attempts to weaken or repeal the Endangered Species Act. We will be following and blogging on this issue and the issue of public land transfer.

Things you can do:
You are welcome to take anything from this blog and re-use it in a letter, email, or editorial. Keep your tone respectful and remember that conservation is not and should not be a partisan issue.  But please comment! Bob always believed that we can make a difference. Let's prove him right.

Public land is understandably a far hotter issue in the western United States, where the federal government owns vast tracts of land. But even there, groups like Sportsmen's Access, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership are fighting for public land. I get upset email on our support for hunting and fishing, but I encourage people to take a look at what these groups and others like them are doing to support public lands. They are also an important reminder that conservation isn't, in the words of the Theodore Roosevelt Partnership, red or blue.

It has also been pointed out to me that bald eagles and peregrine falcons live pretty comfortably with humans. But not all species can live as comfortably with humans as bald eagles and peregrine falcons do. Do species that can't matter less than those that can?

And finally, the struggle to preserve wildlife and wildland is, in my opinion, an absolute necessity for our own survival. If they don't make it, we won't either. We aren't an exception to the requirements of clean air, clean water, and habitat, and humans and animals are in this glorious, lovely mess called life together.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

National Save The Eagles Day!

How many readers remember their first sight of a bald eagle? I saw my first bald eagle flying along the Mississippi river near Minneapolis, MN. This was back before cell phones and cameras, so I had to wait to get home to tell my husband and call my Mom. I was so excited!

My children don't remember when bald eagles were rare. Like children will, they sometimes roll their eyes or sigh when I get excited about eagles today. When my middle son counted bald eagles and crows on a peregrine survey last March, he counted many more eagles than crows. They soared over Lake Pepin, perched on trees, sat on rapidly melting ice, and kettled over bluffs, driving the local peregrine falcons crazy. I pointed out how fortunate we were to watch one formerly endangered species duking it out with another on a sunny spring day: a moment that very nearly didn't happen since both species were perched on the brink of extinction just fifty years ago.

Persecution, habitat loss, and the pesticide DDT nearly wiped eagles and falcons out. From a population of hundreds of thousands, bald eagles were whittled down to 412 breeding pairs by the 1950s. The peregrine falcon declined even more precipitously. By 1970, the peregrine was extinct east of the Mississippi and there were only 39 breeding pairs left in the lower 48 states, period. What was going on? Researchers found that the widely used pesticide DDT was causing bald eagles and peregrine falcons to lay eggs so thin that they cracked under the weight of incubating parents.

While eagles were already protected by the Lacey Act, the Migratory Bird Treat Act, and the Bald and Golden Eagle Act (read about them here), it was clear that more was needed to save the eagle from extinction. The newly created Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT in 1972 (read more about that here) and Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973. The Act was signed into law by President Nixon on December 28, 1973. I was seven years old and had never seen a wild bald eagle or peregrine falcon despite living and vacationing in what was once prime territory for both of them. I can't stress this enough: they were gone.

As Trip Van Noppen points out in his article on the subject, "Because of the act, today’s children are able to experience not only bald eagles but also orcas, alligators, condors, grizzly bears and myriad other creatures as living, breathing parts of our natural heritage — not as dusty museum specimens." While my children don't always appreciate bald eagles, they live in a world where eagles and falcons are a common sight. This wasn't the result of luck or accident, but rather the result of hard work, determination, and a great deal of personal courage on the part of people like Rachel Carson and Joseph Hickey. We celebrate bald eagles as a symbol of our national freedom, but they also symbolize the commitment we made back in 1973 to preserve wild life and wild lands.