Q: Most Americans support a strong ESA despite those working to curtail its effectiveness. You’ve been a champion for the ESA in the Senate. Why are you so passionate about protecting it?
A: I believe in my core that it’s the right thing to do. In part, it’s because of the respect I have for the other forms of life we share this planet with. But it’s also because our well-being as a species is so intricately linked to the well-being of other species in ways we have yet to even fully understand. As biologist Paul Ehrlich has observed, letting species go extinct—letting them drop out of the system that we depend on, one by one—is akin to sawing off the tree limb that we ourselves are sitting on.
There are recent scientific estimates that suggest we have lost more than half of all wildlife globally in the last five decades. We are in the middle of a sixth mass extinction, one that is entirely human-caused. Protecting the ESA is more important now than it has ever been.
Q: Should politicians or scientists decide when a species is endangered or threatened with extinction?
A: Congress has a very important role to play in protecting endangered species. It is our job to make sure the agencies and scientists charged with protecting species and their habitat have the resources they need to do their work. We should not be in the business of deciding what the best science is or in choosing whether a species should receive protection. Rather than trying to meddle with the law’s implementation, we need to make sure it is fully funded so agencies and scientists can do their jobs and save species from extinction.
Q: Congress passed the ESA with near-unanimous support—only 12 House members voted against it, zero Senators, and a Republican president signed it into law. Why has conservation become so partisan today?
A: Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation out there about the ESA, not unlike the misinformation that abounds about climate change and other environmental issues. There is a perception among certain landowners and private-sector interests that we have to choose between economic development and species conservation—that it is a zero-sum game. This could not be further from the truth. Our country’s GDP did not plummet after the ESA was passed. It’s in our best economic interest to keep as many species around as possible.
Q: What do you tell those who argue that protecting critical habitat is just a federal “land grab”?
A: Two things—first, I tell them the same thing as people who ask why we need to bother conserving species. We need to protect bio-diversity because millions of Americans depend on healthy ecosystems for their livelihoods, their health and their overall well-being. And conserving species means protecting their habitats. The second thing I say is the ESA provides plenty of flexibility for using land designated as critical habitat. The idea that the “Feds” are taking land from private landowners is a fallacy. The prohibition against destroying critical habitat only applies when a federal agency is funding, permitting or carrying out a project, which is pretty rare for private landowners. And even then, a major study found that not a single project has been stopped or substantially altered in the last eight years because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found an action would harm critical habitat. Designating critical habitat is about ensuring species get what they need to survive. It’s not about taking land.
Q: What do you say to critics who focus on the low percentage of species that have been delisted.
A: The number of species delisted is simply not the appropriate benchmark of success for the ESA. Species recovery is not an overnight process. Some species reproduce slowly, or the problems causing their decline can’t be quickly changed. It can take decades for a species to recover to the point where it is safe to remove it from the endangered species list. But there are some tremendous success stories.
As I mentioned earlier, we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction event. This makes it even more remarkable that the ESA has saved 99 percent of all listed species.
Q: What is your favorite species that might have gone extinct in the wild without the ESA?
A: Every species matters, but it would have been a travesty had we lost our national bird, the majestic bald eagle. In New Jersey, our bald eagle population was down to a single nesting pair by 1970. Now, our population has recovered to well over 100 nesting pairs.
Q: What makes you optimistic about efforts to protect the ESA?
A: To reiterate the opening of this interview, the ESA has the support of the American people. An overwhelming majority support upholding the ESA—a figure of around 90 percent is repeatedly reported from national polls. Those who oppose the act are well-organized and know how to make their voices heard, which has created the impression of controversy and a lack of consensus when in fact there is neither. It is the same story we have seen with climate science: A few well-funded and politically connected “merchants of doubt” were able to sow uncertainty in the minds of the public and their elected officials.
The public clearly sides with the ESA. As we saw with the debate over the repeal of the Affordable Care Act this past summer, when the American public organizes to make their collective voice heard, lawmakers listen. And that gives me a great deal of hope for the future of the ESA, and for the future of our planet more broadly.
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Act for Endangered Species
While species protection sounds like a job for politicians and scientists, your daily actions make a big difference, too. Assuming you already recycle, bring your own reusable bag to stores and pick up litter, here are some more ideas to help wildlife, including our most imperiled.
Don’t let your engine idle. Every year, idling U.S. drivers waste 6 billion gallons of gasoline and $20 billion. Oil drilling and spills destroy and damage habitat and wildlife. Vehicle fumes harm human health and wildlife.
Avoid single-use plastic. Scientists estimate that 315 billion pounds of plastic waste swirl in our oceans, with more than 17 billion pounds added every year. Marine debris doesn't just come from beach litter. Even in landlocked cities, heavy rain washes trash from streets and sidewalks into storm drains, which connect to local waterways and to the ocean.
Turn out the lights. Artificial night lighting doesn’t just diminish our view of the stars. It disrupts the feeding, mating and migratory behavior of wildlife—from sea turtles and birds to fish, frogs, salamanders and fireflies.
Slow down when driving. With up to 2 million collisions between vehicles and wildlife every year, U.S. roadway accidents have major impacts on humans and wildlife. The Federal Highway Administration identified 21 threatened and endangered species—from large mammals to amphibians and slow-moving reptiles—directly affected by vehicle-related deaths.
Never release balloons. From dolphins and sea turtles to bighorn sheep, owls and more, wildlife die because of balloons—even so-called biodegradable ones that take years to degrade. Some animals mistake balloons for food, leading to blocked digestive tracts and slow death by starvation. Others get entangled in balloon strings, leaving wildlife unable to move, eat or defend themselves.
Recycle electronics. Most locales have a household hazardous waste drop-off. Electronics contain arsenic, cadmium, lead and zinc, and some—cell phones included—contain metals found in coltan, a mineral extracted deep in the habitat of the endangered eastern lowland African gorilla. With 80 percent of the world’s known coltan supply in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, recycling reduces the need for habitat-destroying mining.
Food choices matter. Minimizing use of products containing palm oil and ensuring that any palm oil you use is sustainably sourced helps protect the only habitat left for orangutans, along with tigers, proboscis monkeys and more. And don’t forget the wildlife benefits of reduced meat consumption. If you eat meat, look for a certified wildlife-friendly source to reward ranchers who practice coexistence with free-roaming wildlife. Every year USDA Wildlife Services provides wildlife-damage control services that kill millions of animals—including wolves, coyotes, black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, river otters, foxes, beavers and prairie dogs. Often this is to protect cattle and sheep from predators or because ranchers view some animals as competitors for grass.
Lead by example. It is the most effective way to show others how easy it is to make a difference and help wildlife every day.