June 23, 2015
Jason Rylander

Protecting Endangered Species is about more than Money

Defenders of Wildlife recently went to court to protect the Utah prairie dog. But this case has a twist. It’s not just about one species – and its outcome could have implications for hundreds of others.

The Pacific Legal Foundation has argued that the federal government has no constitutional power to protect Utah prairie dogs. They say that because the species lives in just one state, only the state government has the right to manage it. They also argue that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) only applies to species with a known commercial value – arguably not Utah prairie dogs – so the federal government has no real stake in making sure the species survives.

These are radical ideas. And they’re completely at odds with the history of the ESA.

The Innate Value of Wildlife – All of it

Plants and animals can drive economic activity. Up to 50% of the $825 billion global pharmaceutical market depends on genetic materials from plants and wildlife. Hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching pumps around $145 billion into the economy each year. But species are worth more than the amount of money we can make off of them. Congress designed the ESA to preserve not just the species with known economic value, but the diversity of life on this planet for present and future generations. From the beginning, the ESA has been about protecting that diversity.

horseshoe crabs, © Greg Breese/USFWSA congressional report issued when the ESA was passed makes its purpose clear: “As we homogenize the habitats in which these plants and animals evolved, and as we increase the pressure for products that they are in a position to supply … we threaten their—and our own—genetic heritage. … They are keys to puzzles which we cannot solve, and may provide answers to questions which we have not yet learned to ask.”

Despite all our intelligence, we don’t fully understand the role each species can play. The Pacific Yew was once considered a trash tree, routinely discarded or burned. Turns out, its bark contains taxol – a $2 billion cancer drug. Horseshoe crab blood is used to test medical equipment and vaccines prior to use. It saves millions of lives every year, but we nearly decimated the population harvesting them to use as bait. It is these kinds of connections, in addition to the innate value of the diversity of life, that the ESA dictates we must protect. For as much as we know now, what is left still to be discovered? If we give up on the Utah prairie dog as simply “not worth” protecting, what as-yet-unknown connections will we be breaking?

A Verdict for One – an Impact on Hundreds

This case centers around the question of whether the federal government has the constitutional authority to protect species that live in just one state and are not traded in commerce. A lot of species arguably fit that description. Of the roughly 1,500 species now on the ESA list, nearly 900 live in just one state. All Hawaiian species. All Puerto Rican species. Some 200 species in California. Such species have been protected under the ESA for more than 40 years, and need that protection if we want them to continue to recover.

Red wolf and pups, © Greg Kosh/USFWS

All that could change if certain lawyers and members of Congress have their way. A new bill proposed by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) seeks the same outcome as this case – to remove ESA protections for any species located only in one state. Of the dozens and dozens of anti-wildlife bills and riders proposed so far in this Congress, this is among the most wide-reaching and potentially devastating to wildlife.

It isn’t the first time we’ve seen arguments like these. Similar cases have been argued in the past, over species like the red wolf, Arroyo toad, Delta smelt and more. They have all failed. But despite that precedent, earlier this year, Judge Dee Benson of Utah ruled in PLF’s favor and struck down federal protection for the Utah prairie dog. If allowed to stand, the ruling would cripple the protection of endangered and threatened species. We brought the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, and are arguing to keep the ESA strong and intact.

At its heart, this case hasn’t been about the prairie dog. It’s been about weakening the ESA. Finding one thread to pick at, through which the entire Act can be unraveled. Giving free reign to economic pursuits, no matter the cost to our nation’s wildlife, landscapes, or natural resources. It is hard to believe that back in 1973 the ESA passed the Senate 92-0 and the House by 355-4. Back then, Democrats and Republicans alike understood what was at stake. Yet today, the ESA is under attack – and at a time when we can least afford to lose it.

We are in the midst of what scientists call the Sixth Great Extinction, and it is the result of ongoing habitat loss and overexploitation. According to the Living Planet Index, the total number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish across the globe is, on average, about half the size it was 40 years ago. And climate change, if left unabated, will affect not only species diversity, but our entire way of life.

The great scientist E.O. Wilson once said the loss of species diversity is “the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.” This is about the kind of world we want to leave behind. This is about whether we have the humility to make room for our fellow travelers on this planet. That is why the ESA is so important. And it is why I believe ultimately Courts and Congress will keep the law intact.


Jason Rylander headshot

Jason Rylander

Senior Staff Attorney
Jason Rylander has litigated endangered species and habitat protection cases in federal courts across the country since joining Defenders in 2005.

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