With some lawmakers in Congress repeatedly introducing legislation to weaken federal protections for endangered species—even trying to return oversight to state agencies—Defenders’ Center for Conservation Innovation (CCI) went to work to develop a new web application that shows exactly how many species would be affected by such legislation.
“Most Americans don’t realize that more than 1,200 species—about three-quarters of all U.S. species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA)—currently live within the boundaries of only one state,” says Jacob Malcom, CCI’s director.
Decades of underfunding have made it difficult for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make this data readily accessible.
“When deciding between funding on-the-ground immediate needs and longer-term investment in data, FWS funds the more urgent need to help a species—and rightfully so,” says Malcom. “But for Congress to make informed decisions and Americans to take advocacy actions, they need to know the data. We decided to bring it to light.”
CCI’s interactive map shows how many species would be affected and just how damaging it would be to turn endangered species legislation back to the states. Some species, like red wolves and Florida panthers, were once wide-ranging but are now localized and critically endangered. Others span borders, their habitat managed well or poorly depending on the state. Moreover, state laws are generally weaker and less comprehensive than the ESA, according to a 2017 analysis published in the Environmental Law Reporter. For example, West Virginia and Wyoming do not protect endangered species at all through state law, only 27 states require scientific evidence in listing and delisting decisions, and in 38 states, wildlife experts need not be consulted to move ahead with projects.
This makes the ESA a crucial tool to protect wildlife, which it has been ever since Congress passed the law with near-unanimous bipartisan support (355-4) in 1973. Legislators intended its enactment to ensure that the federal government would step in should a state agency fail to guarantee a species’ long-term survival. Under this powerful law, only the best-available science—not economics—is used to decide whether a species should receive federal protection. That’s why pro-oil and gas legislators and other big-money interests continuously push for Congress to weaken it.
“Industry doesn’t want regulations to hold them in check,” says Jason Rylander, a Defenders senior counsel. “They don’t want other species to get in the way of profits.” Most recently, the Trump administration initiated new rules under the guise of “modernizing” the law by taking away regulators’ ability to factor in the effects of climate change on ESA-protected species.
Defenders and others filed a joint lawsuit last August, and the following month 17 states and two major metropolitan cities also sued, vowing to “come out swinging” to protect a law on which so many imperiled plants and animals depend.
Check out the app at: