Endangered Species Day

Baby harp seal on snow, white and furry with big dark eyes.
Photo by Hotel Kaesong on Flickr, Creative Commons license, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Today is Endangered Species Day. This day is observed each year on the third Friday of May, a day to raise awareness about endangered species and celebrate those that have recovered through conservation efforts.1 But like me, I bet many of you probably already try to raise awareness when the opportunity arises.

When I was a child, I learned that baby harp seals – the adorable, white, fluffy ones – were killed solely for their fur. At 6 years old, I could not understand how people would kill these animals just for their coats. I believe this is what sparked the environmentalist in me at that young age. I would try to teach others about harp seal pup clubbing and I had a Greenpeace ‘Save the Seals’ button that I wore. A few years later, I learned about elephant poaching – again, shocked and dismayed that people would kill such a large, beautiful animal just for the ivory in its tusks. I wrote papers in school and even designed a t-shirt advocating for elephants.

Obviously, this has continued into adulthood.

Me at 6 years old holding my baby seal stuffed animals.
Me at 6 years old holding my baby seal stuffed animals.

Why Are So Many Species Endangered?

Most endangered species become endangered because of human activity. As our own population increases, other species experience the loss and degradation of habitat, mainly from deforestation. People overhunt and overfish, introduce invasive species, and contribute to climate change.2 Each of these actions slowly degrades the ecosystem of each species and they cannot survive. “Human activity has altered about 75 percent of the surface of the land, eliminating natural systems millions of years in the making and squeezing wildlife into fragments of their former ranges,” wrote Dr. Sylvia A. Earle.3

When we lose a species, we lose an important component in the intricate web of life. The loss creates a butterfly effect in the food chain and ecosystems. Scientists call this the decline of biodiversity. But when we lose a species forever, I feel like we’ve lost more than that – we are losing part of our humanity. We are losing something we can’t replace or reproduce. Technology can’t reverse extinction. (And even if it could someday, we don’t understand every single moving part of ecosystems. Have you ever seen Jurassic Park?)

“We are now causing the extinction of more species than have gone extinct in the last 65 million years.” -Rob Stewart, Revolution

Graphic of the world map with animals making the outlines of the continents.
Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

How Many Species Are Threatened?

More than 40,000 species are threatened with extinction!4 Today, there are 8,722 critically endangered species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.5 The IUCN, or the International Union for Conservation of Nature, is the international authority on assessing the status and conservation of plant, animal, and insect species across the world. Here’s a short video about their importance:

“It amazes me that some of our most well-known species are the ones that are closest to extinction.” -Joel Sartore, the Photo Ark

The Endangered Species Act of 1973

This act is the main legislation in the United States aimed at conserving plants and animals at risk of extinction. “The act’s main directive is to recover threatened and endangered species to a state of health and stability in which they no longer require protected status,” Jeff Corwin wrote.6

“The act is easily the most important piece of conservation legislation in the nation’s history. Its most dramatic successes include the recovery of the American alligator, gray whale, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and eastern population of the brown pelican.” -Edward O. Wilson, Afterword of Silent Spring

Regardless of our political beliefs or affiliation, we must protect and preserve this act and its related legislation. We must stop allowing our representatives to strip away its protections, which they are consistently trying to do. Joel Sartore of the Photo Ark, wrote: “Legislators passed it almost unanimously in 1973. But it has not been reauthorized – given multiyear funding – since the late 1990s. As it stands now, funding for the [Endangered Species Act] comes from annual appropriations requested by the Department of the Interior – subject, of course, to the President’s agenda.”7

Rhinos and a giraffe in the background in a landscape.
Photo by Ken Goulding on Unsplash

Let’s Go Back

“People protect what they love.” -Jacques Cousteau

We can’t just toss a few of every species into zoos and then call it good. We’ve got to do more. Maybe we should go back to thinking like we did as kids. Animals were special, exciting to see and learn about, and important to protect. We all understood this so clearly as children! Even Walt Disney understood:

“How could this earth of ours, which is only a speck in the heavens, have so much variety of life, so many curious and exciting creatures?” -Walt Disney

So what can you do? Protect what you love. Teach others. Here are “10 Actions You Can Take to Conserve Endangered Species” from the Endangered Species Coalition:8

Infographic

Thanks for reading, and Happy Endangered Species Day!

Footnotes:

The Endangered Species Act is now Endangered

Last updated on February 25, 2024.

Photo of a leopard facing the camera.
Photo by Patrick Shields on Pixabay.

I don’t like to write about topics related to politics, especially in our current divisive and eruptive political environment. However, sometimes politics cross the line and challenge vital environmental protections. This week, the Trump administration announced that it was going to essentially gut the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Before I get on my soapbox, please realize that many species would be extinct today if not for the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This includes the bald eagle, the national symbol of the United States. They were placed under protection through the ESA in the 1970s when only 400 pairs were remaining. They were removed from the list in the 2000s because their population increased to 20,000 pairs. It took almost 40 years of educating people, hunters, and farmers, as well as reducing the use of toxic chemicals (DDT, specifically) for agriculture which inevitably make their way into the food chain. This success story alone should be all we need to keep the ESA sacred.

They’re moving fast on this as well – the new changes are expected to take place next month. Not many government changes go into effect that fast.

Black and white photo of a bald eagle.
Photo by Cristofer Jeschke on Unsplash.

Including Economics in Assessment

A New York Times article explained, “the new rules would make it easier to remove a species from the endangered list and weaken protections for threatened species, the classification one step below endangered.” The ESA previously did not allow for economic assessments when determining if a species deserves protection. “For instance, estimating lost revenue from a prohibition on logging in a critical habitat” would become part of the equation.1 This is dangerous because in government the short-term costs often outweigh the long-term benefits. This type of thinking could cause many species to become extinct.

“Over all, the revised rules appear very likely to clear the way for new mining, oil and gas drilling, and development in areas where protected species live.”2

According to the article, Erik Milito, a vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, which is a trade group representing the oil and gas industry, praised the revisions to the ESA.3 Of course, he did. Those industries often overlook the toll they take on the environment.

We have to put nature first and make nature more important than profit and consumption.

Excluding Climate Change as a factor

While economic assessments will now be considered, revisions will go a step further by REMOVING the impact of climate change when evaluating how to best protect species. This is despite that study after study, CITES, the IUCN, and the United Nations have all determined that climate change is one of the critical challenges in protecting wildlife. A recent study in part from the United Nations declared that approximately one million species are at risk of extinction and that global warming is one of the biggest factors in wildlife decline and endangerment.4

“The new rules also give the government significant discretion in deciding what is meant by the term ‘foreseeable future.’ That’s a semantic change with far-reaching implications because it enables regulators to disregard the effects of extreme heat, drought, rising sea levels and other consequences of climate change that may occur several decades from now.”5

Photo of rhinoceros mother and calf in South Africa.
Photo by Ken Goulding on Unsplash.

Politicians Claim Revisions are for “Modernization” and “Transparency”

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the changes would modernize the ESA and make it more transparent, which is just not true. “Mr. Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, wrote that the act places an ‘unnecessary regulatory burden’ on companies.” He argued in 2018 that the ESA elevates protections for threatened species to the same level as those given to endangered species and that “we need creative, incentive-based conservation, but that becomes impossible with the current blurring of the lines between the two distinctions.”6

The distinctions were created because of scientific foresight. If a particular species is declared “threatened,” the ESA allows protections to be put in place to prevent that species from becoming endangered. We cannot wait for species to become endangered before we do something about it.

Bernhardt also wants species to stay on the list for less time. The reason species stay listed as threatened or endangered is because they are not recovering in population, habitat, and health. The argument that the law is not reasonable because species are rarely removed from the list, is flawed. “Since the law was passed, more than 1,650 have been listed as threatened or endangered, while just 47 have been delisted because their populations rebounded.” That’s not because the standards have gone up! That’s because species are continually threatened and assaulted by a variety of human activities. Further, it seems that no one is looking at the number of species that went extinct while waiting to get on to the ESA’s list.

Photo of a sea turtle swimming under water.
Image by Андрей Корман from Pixabay.

Government Representatives Have Attacked the Endangered Species Act before

Republicans have been working on relaxing and reducing this bill for several years, if not longer. I’m sharing a video of wildlife biologist and conservationist Jeff Corwin (@wildcorwin) testifying at a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee in July 2017:

“Historically, the [Endangered Species Act] was not politically-based. Remember, it was produced in an administration that had tremendous challenges. And if it wasn’t for Richard Nixon, and his policies, we would not have bald eagles today.” -Jeff Corwin

Black and white photo of an African elephant and calf.
Image by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay.

“We celebrate the value of natural resources, going back to Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, through the work of Rachel Carson. And today, we as Americans, are unique and we have a such a splendid tableau of valuable species and landscapes. And it can only stay through wise, pragmatic, common-sense management, and I believe that the ESA is a big partner in that.” -Jeff Corwin

In response to this news, Corwin denounced the changes on social media:

“When we allow our political persuasions to destroy the very fabric of our country‘s wild legacy, then it will be our children that pay the ultimate price.”

Update (8/27/2019): I found this video of an interview with Jeff Corwin from the same date that I originally published this article:

UPDATE 2/25/2024: A coalition sued for the Endangered Species Act to be restored, and in 2022 a federal judge “overturned a 2019 Trump administration move to gut the landmark Endangered Species Act, vacating that administration’s changes and restoring protections for hundreds of species.”7

You Can Help!

Everyone who knows even just a little about the Endangered Species Act knows that it has been successful. So we have to fight this! We can be the change! As always, thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

Footnotes: