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The Endangered Species Act: A Controversy

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The federal Fish and Wildlife Service declined protection for 25 species on Oct. 4, one day after the House Natural Resources Committee passed five amendments to the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  Environmentalists say that the protection limits target species that will threaten industry, which opponents of the ESA have long argued is hindered by the restrictions imposed by endangered species laws.

Proposing amendments to the ESA is nothing new.  The Center for Biological Diversity claims that politicians have put forward 270 amendments to the bill since the GOP gained control of the House of Representatives in 2011.  What's more, 47 proposals have occurred in 2017 alone.  

The CBD refers to these proposals as "attacks" on the ESA, which they believe is a crucial piece of legislation for preventing corporate interests from destroying the nation's biodiversity.  

Industry leaders and some politicians, on the other hand, view the ESA as too protective.  Some say that the bill is better at harming business than protecting wildlife.

It's not difficult to see how one could doubt the effectiveness of the ESA.  An article by Scientific American states that only 1 percent of protected species have actually recovered well enough to be de-listed.  For many, this is hardly enough success to justify allocating the thousands of dollars it takes to protect the other 99 percent of species.

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At the same time, the efforts taken to protect all species tend to have a positive impact on surrounding ecosystems.  Louisa Wilcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council explained how the protection of one animal improved conditions in in a major tourist attraction: "After listing, the government cleaned up the massive garbage problems in Yellowstone Park, which reduced the habituation of bears to human foods -- a pattern that often leads to grizzly deaths."

Wilcox said that other protections, such as shutting down roads and removing commercial sheep herds, led to less interaction between humans and bears in the area.  The Regulatory Review reports the grizzly bear was officially de-listed in 2017 after being placed on the Endangered Species List in 1975, two years after the ESA became law.

The 42-year gap between listing and de-listing is reflective of the long recovery rates projected for each species, which can span 20-50 years, Scientific American reports.

According to the CBD, 80 percent of listed species have not yet reached their recovery year; however, 90 percent of them are recovering at their expected rate.

Taking scientific data about recovery rates into account, it might simply be too early to know whether the ESA is an effective bill.  For industries affected by the bill, however, the impact is palpable in the here and now.

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"I would be happy to invalidate the Endangered Species Act," said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop.

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Bishop's fellow Republicans voted in a bipartisan manner to pass the act under President Richard Nixon in 1973.  Tensions between conservatives and conservationists began to grow in 1978, when the Supreme Court ordered the Tennessee Valley Authority to end construction on a dam because it would damage the habitat of a small but endangered fish, High Country News reports.

The 1990 listing of the Northern spotted owl, which caused significant loss of timber jobs, could be considered a breaking point between conservative politics and species protection.  Though timber jobs were reportedly already declining at that point, many companies and workers blamed its downturn on the owl protections.  The GOP and industries have grown increasingly frustrated with the ESA since then.

The public, on the other hand, has retained a positive view of the bill.  A 2015 poll conducted for Earthjustice and Defenders of Wildlife by Tulchin Research found that 90 percent of American citizens supported the ESA.  A vast majority, 71 percent, of 600 survey respondents also thought that species protection should be decided by scientists and not politicians, while 66 percent believed that endangered species protection and economic welfare were not mutually exclusive.

It's worth noting that economic impact is already taken into account when protecting species under the ESA, Salon reports.  If two of the five bills proposed in the House become law, economic impact will have a much stronger role to play in which species get listed.  States, counties, and tribal governments will also have a stronger say than scientists when providing data on species status.

Sources: Center for Biological Diversity, The Regulatory Review,Scientific American, High Country News, Earthjustice, Salon / Featured Image: U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr / Embedded Images: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, USFWS Mountain-Prairii/FlickrchrismetcalfTV/Flickr

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