Our priceless wildlife heritage still exists thanks to the protections provided under the Endangered Species Act

By Jamie Rappaport Clark

They lumber amid thick sagebrush, juniper shrubs and Ross’s bentgrass. They’re seemingly unconcerned by the tourists standing wide-eyed a football field away. They pick at things, eating constantly, shifting between a slow amble to an agile run that defies their size and heft. They can weigh up to 600 pounds, and stand more than six feet tall on their hind legs. During spring and summer months, when the sightseeing season heats up in Yellowstone National Park, crowds—gathered with binoculars and spotting scopes—have the same response on seeing them: first gasps, then smiles.

Grizzly bears fascinate us. When they emerge from their winter dens, dug out in the fall beneath rocky shelter or along sandy slopes and are spotted gorging themselves on new vegetation or carcasses of bison and elk that died over the winter, we know that spring has arrived. When female grizzlies fiercely defend their cubs, we relate to these mother bears with compassion and understanding. We would do the same for our own children. The grizzly bear embodies our natural heritage and our fascination with the vast wilderness of our great nation.

Grizzly Bears, Photo: Michael Nichols/Ronan Donovan/National Park Service/National Geographic Creative But just four decades ago, we drove the grizzly bear to the brink of extinction. Hunting and habitat loss reduced the number of grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to fewer than 140. A crisis emerged—of species and of conscience. Bald eagles, our nation’s symbol of freedom, were dying in droves. Grizzlies and wolves—apex predators in sensitive wild areas—had disappeared. Whales, manatees and sea turtles were being commercially exploited, caught in fishing gear or hit by speeding boats. Our rivers were catching fire. Our air was unbreathable, and oil covered our shores. We were destroying our natural heritage, killing the wildlife and destroying habitats that had come to define who we are as Americans. We knew something had to be done.

By 1972, Congress had passed the Clean Water Act and made major amendments to the Clean Air Act adopted nine years earlier. This was the beginning of a movement, and in one more show of bipartisanship—so rare in our current political climate—Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973. Americans now had the single greatest tool for protecting species in danger of extinction, and biologists and scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service went straight to work.

The grizzly bear was listed as a threatened species just two years later, and its recovery has been remarkable. FWS scientists now estimate about 690 grizzlies live in Greater Yellowstone today, a noticeable improvement from the 136 barely hanging on just 42 years ago. FWS declared grizzlies in the area recovered in June.

Conservation efforts for the bears now lie with state fish and wildlife agencies in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Defenders remains concerned over how the states will manage these bears and their habitat now that they no longer have federal protection, and is resolute in holding federal and state wildlife management agencies accountable. Other conservation groups are challenging the delisting in court, contesting the legal mechanism FWS relied on to delist a single population of the bear.

But the ongoing recovery of Yellowstone grizzly bears still stands as an undeniable example of how the ESA can save a disappearing species. While much more can and should be done to protect grizzlies in Yellowstone, it is clear that their recovery would not have been possible without the ESA. And yet, despite its many successes, some in Congress want to destroy this bedrock environmental law.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, there are no fewer than five separate bills that would undermine ESA authority. The Gray Wolf State Management Act would remove federal ESA protections for gray wolves in the Great Lake states and Wyoming. The Listing Reform Act would put a price on species conservation by enabling FWS to determine that a species that would normally be listed would not receive those protections if there are “unacceptable” economic impacts. The State, Tribal and Local Species Transparency and Recovery Act would subvert the ESA’s science-based listing process by allowing any information provided by states, tribes or counties to constitute the best available science. The Saving America’s Endangered Species Act would strip ESA protections for non-native U.S. species, limiting FWS’s ability to regulate illegal wildlife trafficking. And the Endangered Species Litigation Reasonableness Act would undercut public engagement in the ESA by impeding a private citizen’s ability to obtain counsel and challenge illegal government actions in court.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said late last year that he wasn’t sure if there was a way of reforming the ESA, but preferred instead to “repeal and replace it.” He chairs the powerful House Committee on Natural Resources, which held a hearing in July on each of the five anti-ESA bills currently under consideration. 

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who chairs the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, routinely calls for more state authority over endangered species protection and management and less involvement of the federal government. He has stated that our nation’s 50 state fish and wildlife agencies are “a formidable wildlife conservation machine.” Yet only a third of states have plans in place to protect all federally listed species, according to a recent report by the University of California-Irvine School of Law’s Center for Land, Environment and Natural Resources. Wyoming—home to grizzlies—doesn’t even have state legislation protecting species.

The threat to the ESA is very real. And the survival of many important and popular species is at stake. The ESA is our nation’s most effective law for protecting wildlife in danger of disappearing forever, preventing more than 99 percent of listed species from going extinct. It already allows for flexibility, requiring that federal, state, local and tribal officials work together to save species. This flexibility provides opportunities to plan for smart development that includes plans for protecting and preserving endangered species and their habitat. The ESA is a law of last resort, a necessary and vital backstop after decades of decline and when state management has proven insufficient. 

Without the ESA, we’d have no bald eagles, no wolves and no grizzly bears in Yellowstone. We’d be leaving a legacy of extinction for our children, bearing responsibility for the loss of wildlife and having to answer to future generations as to why we didn’t act when we had the chance. 

This winter, and hopefully for many more to come, Yellowstone grizzlies will prepare for their long hibernation. They’ll move to north-facing slopes, where snow accumulation is minimal and dig in to insulate themselves from sub-zero temperatures. When they lie down for their long sleep, their body temperature will drop by about 12 degrees and they’ll slow their breaths to just once every 45 seconds. Come spring, they’ll emerge, just like they have for millennia. We have a responsibility to ensure that this rhythm of life remains. 

We must protect the laws in place that allow us to save endangered species so local economies that rely on tourism dollars can continue to thrive, the ecosystems that support these species can in turn keep our air and water clean and future generations can enjoy the splendor we so often take for granted. We did not inherit these natural wonders from our parents. We’re simply borrowing them from our children.

Jamie Rappaport Clark is president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife.

Lesser long-nosed bat

Listed: 1988
Status: delisted in 2016
Once reviled and persecuted, these bats are now appreciated for their agricultural role. Migrating between the Southwest and southern Mexico, they pollinate plants on the fly—including the blue agave plant, an ingredient in tequila.

Humpback whales
Listed: 1973
Status: U.S. populations delisted in 2016
Years of hunting drove the humpback to the edge of extinction. But thanks to an international moratorium on whaling and additional safeguards under the ESA, tens of thousands of humpbacks once again grace the seas. Many of these can be seen each year in waters off the Northeast coast. 

Listed: 1973
Status: delisted in the Northern Rockies in 2011
Wolves in the Northern Rockies lost their ESA protection with a “rider” attached to a must-pass budget bill—the first-ever removal of a species from the endangered species list by Congress. This happened after a 2010 federal court ruling—following a Defenders lawsuit—that found FWS cannot remove protection for wolves in their core range if conditions in other significant portions of their range do not support recovery. With aggressive wolf hunts occurring in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, the future of wolf recovery across the region remains uncertain. But there is no doubt that the ESA made the wolf’s impressive rebound possible. Meanwhile, the Mexican gray wolf in the Southwest and the red wolf in the Southeast remain endangered and in need of all the help ESA protection can bring.

Bald eagle
Listed: 1973
Status: delisted in 2007
Nothing says ESA success better than the rebound of our national bird. Harmed by DDT (banned in 1972), habitat destruction and trophy hunting, nesting pairs were down to 500 in the Lower 48 before the ESA swooped in to help them. Today there are more than 9,000 nesting pairs, with thousands of juveniles among them.

Listed: 1982
Status: Endangered
Initially imperiled by hunting and habitat loss, this small wild cat still struggles to hang on because of habitat loss, collisions with vehicles and inbreeding. With only about 50 left in two isolated populations, the recovery plan under the ESA includes ensuring the ocelots in Arizona and Texas connect with those in Mexico—something a border wall would make impossible.

Listed: 1973
Status: downlisted from “endangered” to “threatened” in 2016
The gentle, slow-moving manatee is threatened by habitat destruction and boat collisions. Under ESA protection, areas have been set aside to help this imperiled mammal recover, and the Florida population has increased 500 percent since aerial surveys began in 1991. Though still at risk, the manatee is rebounding largely thanks to the protections afforded under the ESA.

Check out our ESA video at defenders.org/savetheESA.


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