Endangered Species Act at 50 faces growing list of threats

By Mike Heuer
Protections under the Endangered Species Act have helped re-establish stable bald eagle populations in the United States. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI
1 of 4 | Protections under the Endangered Species Act have helped re-establish stable bald eagle populations in the United States. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 26 (UPI) -- The Endangered Species Act enters its 51st year with many successes -- saving the whooping crane, bald eagle and gray wolf from extinction, to name a few. But its next chapter is threatened by a lack of funding and shrinking biodiversity amid a climate crisis, advocates say.

Conflicting interests of energy production and national security projects that require land add to budgetary constraints that can hinder the preservation of dwindling species under the law enacted in 1973.


"The Endangered Species Act plays a vital role in maintaining biodiversity, which is crucial for ecosystem reliance and human health and well-being," the World Wildlife Fund said in a statement recognizing the act's 50th anniversary on Dec. 27.

The ESA "is increasingly important in the context of climate change as shifting climates add additional stress on already struggling threatened and endangered wildlife," the WWF said, adding that nearly 40% of species in the United States are threatened with extinction.


One in four species listed as endangered lack recovery plans to help them survive and attain sustainable populations, Robert Dewey, vice president of government relations for the Defenders of Wildlife, told UPI.

Another 300 or more species should be listed as threatened or endangered but aren't due to a lack of funding to better assess their populations and threats to their sustainability, like construction projects, Dewey said.

Funding shortfall

President Joe Biden's 2024 budget request includes $4.2 billion for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for implementing the Endangered Species Act, along with the National Marine Fisheries Service. The current appropriation is $2.2 billion.

Dewey said ESA efforts are allocated 25% to 40% of the needed funding.

"There are 10,000 projects reviewed every year," Dewey said, "but more funding is needed to review the projects faster."

In most cases, efforts under the law to protect a threatened or endangered species won't stop a project, just require modifications. Without full funding, though, reviews are delayed or not done at all in the interests of advancing projects, which often are related to national security, infrastructure or energy production.

For example, threatened or endangered species are present at 85% of U.S. Army installations.


"Modifications of projects tend to be needed, but they need reviews to ensure the safety of endangered species," Dewey said.

All federal agencies are responsible for helping endangered and threatened species recover. They can take direct action to improve local habitats and enforce laws against poachers or development projects that are in violation.

99% success rate

The ESA lists 1,662 species that are protected - 388 threatened species and 1,274 endangered ones. A threatened species is one that wildlife experts say is likely to become endangered; an endangered species is one in real danger of extinction.

WWF calls the ESA a significant innovation in conservation.

"The Endangered Species Act has prevented 99% of its listed species from extinction and has served as a global model for responsible wildlife protection," the group said.

Among species that became extinct prior to the ESA's passage in 1973 is the passenger pigeon, which once flew in flocks that may have numbered in the millions. The bird no longer exists, mostly due to habitat loss and overhunting.

The whooping crane once flourished, with numbers reaching about 1,500 in the mid-1800s, but nearly went extinct about 100 years later. The tallest bird in North America, it can stand up to 5 feet high with a wingspan of up to 8 feet.


The majestic whooping crane migrates from Canada, where it summers, down to the Gulf Coast and northern Mexico during the winter. It nearly died out, with only 16 reported in 1941. Its population has since recovered to more than 500 and is considered stable.

ESA protections have helped re-establish stable bald eagle and peregrine falcon populations in the United States. The peregrine falcon is the world's fastest animal with a maximum diving speed of 240 mph. The synthetic insecticide DDT nearly wiped out the peregrine falcon and many other egg-laying species, but it has recovered and is no longer on the endangered list.

The formerly endangered gray wolf also has resumed roaming many of its former ranges, including Yellowstone National Park. Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said his work to strengthen the ESA and restore wolves to some of their natural habitats ranked among his proudest achievements.

"Breathing life into the Endangered Species Act, taking those wolves back to Yellowstone [and] restoring the salmon in the rivers of the Pacific Northwest -- I'd say that's at the top," Babbitt told NPR in 2001 of his proudest accomplishments as he left the department.

While the ESA has many success stories, the primary threat to most native species remains the same - habitat loss. And invasive species are an old and constant threat, including zebra mussels, Asian carp and many types of plants.


Meanwhile, new threats are emerging. Those include PFAS, more commonly called "forever chemicals," that can affect eggs, cause immunity issues and create skin lesions that become infected.

"It has the potential to get anywhere, from the deepest parts of the ocean to the top of Mount Everest," Nathan Donley, environmental health science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, told UPI.

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