November 28, 2020

Riding in a rented red pick-up truck in June, I traveled to numerous lakes along the coast of Alaska with my undergraduate advisor in search of stickleback, a small species of fish found in fresh and saltwater environments around the world. Before entering graduate school and my internship with Defenders, I was a student researcher at The College of New Jersey, studying social behavior in stickleback fish. My research advisor made a yearly trek to Alaska to collect specimens for our lab, and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to go with him the summer of 2018.

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Kenai River near Cooper Landing Fall 2012 on the Kenai River near Cooper Landing between rain events
John S. Lang/USFS

I expected to be focused on the task at hand. Instead, once we entered the Kenai Peninsula the amazing array of wildlife absorbed almost all my attention. Bald eagles flew across the sky and humpback whales moved gracefully through the deep blue sea, every so often breaching the surface. Sea lions dotted the coast, lounging on rocks to soak up the almost 24-hour sunlight. On the surface, especially for a Lower 48er, everything about the natural world here seemed right. 

The fact that these species are still here today is in large part due to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Thanks to wildlife conservation and support, these species have been taken off the Endangered Species List. Since its passage in 1973, the ESA has helped prevent over 95% of listed species from going extinct, with around 60 species delisted—including the bald eagle, some humpback populations and the sea lion—because of recovery. These conservation success stories can teach us what conservation efforts can help the thousands of other species still currently under ESA protection.    

Seeing so many bald eagles flying across the sky on my trip to Alaska, it was hard for me to imagine they were once driven to extinction from pesticides like DDT. One of the first species listed when the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973, the bald eagle was delisted in 2007. One of their main reasons for recovery? Charisma.  

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Bald Eagle in Tongass NF
Carey Case/USFS

It helps that the bald eagle is a symbol of our nation. Conservation efforts for the species were highly publicized and supported by the general public, especially after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring deemed DDT partially responsible for the bird’s decline. The ban on the chemical, combined with conservation efforts under the ESA, helped make bald eagle recovery a flagship conservation success story.

I didn’t spend all of my time in Alaska looking up at the sky for birds though. As we rode down the winding roads of the Kenai peninsula, I noticed various hues of green everywhere, from the pines nestled below the mountain peaks to the grass growing next to tricking blue streams. Plants can appear abundant, but that doesn’t mean they are safe. They just don’t receive as much attention as animals—even though they are an extremely important part of ecosystems, providing food, shelter and nutrients for other species. The ESA protects 946 listed plants, including Alaska’s Aleutian shield fern.

Though no Alaskan plants have recovered yet after listing under the ESA, the Tennessee purple coneflower and white-haired goldenrod are two examples of successful plant conservation stories. Threatened by the growing housing developments in the Nashville area, the Tennessee purple coneflower was listed in 1979, and one of the first plants protected under the ESA. Public and private land protection helped this species recover enough for delisting in 2011. Similarly, the white-haired goldenrod was in decline from habitat destruction and listed in 1988. After years of hard work, combined with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife enlisting support from the Kentucky State National Reserves Commission and the U.S. Forest Service, habitat protection helped lead to delisting in 2015.

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Stellar Sea Lion
Kay White/NPS

Parking the truck at a bed and breakfast, we boarded a tiny float plane, ready to see Alaska from above. Up in the sky, we could just barely make out the outlines of a colony of Steller sea lions, another species that achieved conservation success, on the rocks below, tanning in the Alaskan sun. Although the western population of this species is listed as endangered, the eastern population was removed from ESA protections in 2013. One of the main sources of population decline was from human-wildlife conflict because fishermen, who felt sea lions were reducing their catch, would shoot the animals. Education and outreach helped stop the killings and helped the sea lion rebound.

“If you look down below, you can see a humpback whale and her calf,” our pilot said as we peered out the window of the float plane. I saw two specks below me, the smaller one, the calf, almost glued to the larger speck’s side as they rose in and out of the water. 

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Humpback Whale Kenai Fjords National Park
Kaitlin Thoresen/NPS

The humpback whale was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act, predecessor to the ESA in 1970. In 2015, and then 2016, scientists noticed certain groups of whales were different, and divided the species into 14 distinct population segments (DPSs). Nine of these populations were doing well and were removed from the Endangered Species List. The other populations are still listed and remain threatened with extinction from human disturbance including noise pollution and ship strikes. The language of the ESA, and how the government decides what species make up a “population segment” can dramatically impact the protections that species are given under the law.  

When looking at the over 95% of plants and animals that have remained protected, it is clear that the ESA works to keep species from going extinct.  There is a lot we can learn from the success of these conservation efforts as we work under the ESA moving forward.

  1. Public support: All of these species benefitted from public support. Getting the community     involved in petitioning for listing, community science efforts and advocacy for policies and protections is crucial to show decisionmakers just how much endangered species and conservation matter to Americans.
  2. Science-based decisions: One thing that is crucial in expanding on the success of the ESA is an increase in science use and scientific research in policy decisions. The animal and plant success stories above would not have been possible without the scientists who were hard at work investigating the species’ biology so that we knew where to target conservation efforts. Many endangered species listed are so rare that there is not a lot of information known about them to provide sufficient protections for recovery. Increasing investment in science will help decisionmakers and wildlife managers make more robust policies and protections.
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    Bear Glacier Kenai Fjords National Park
    Bill Thompson/NPS
    Stakeholder engagement: Communication is the key to success in many fields, and conservation is no exception. The collaboration between wildlife managers and stakeholders in all of these success stories was one of the main reasons why conservation actions were able to be implemented so seamlessly and successfully. It is extremely important for there to be dynamic conversations between all people involved in endangered species protection- from advocates at organizations like Defenders, to scientists in the academic community, and to private landowners and the public. It is important for all groups to communicate with each other about what they know so that we can all meet the goal of successful delisting and recovery.  
  4. Habitat Protection: When a species is listed under the ESA, whether it is a land animal like the bald eagle, a marine mammal like the humpback whale, or a plant like the Tennessee purple coneflower, certain areas of water and land can be established as critical habitat for the species to allow them areas in which to recover. As the planet continues to warm and land continues to develop, it is crucial that we take pre-emptive measures to allow the existence of land where these species can survive and thrive.  

In thinking about how to recover the remaining species listed under the ESA, we should challenge ourselves to find out why conservation is more successful for some species and apply those lessons to the species that still need help. Americans value both environmental stewardship and our natural heritage, so we must protect wildlife and wild places for future generations.


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