Imagining the next 50 years of the Endangered Species Act

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When President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) 50 years ago this week, it was with a virtual consensus of Congress: only four representatives voted against it. In the half-century since, the ESA has saved about 200 species from extinction, including the bald eagle, the white-tailed deer, and the American alligator. It protects over 1,600 other species and their ecosystems, providing countless economic and other benefits to communities across the country. These successes make the ESA, and biodiversity conservation, highly popular with Americans.
Even though the well-being of all Americans is fundamentally connected to the quality of life of other plant and animal species, the ESA also has powerful detractors who are uninterested in, or even hostile, to biodiversity conservation.
One of the most recent manifestations of this was in 2018, when the Trump administration capped its broader assault on the ESA with rule changes that shrank protected habitats and reduced protections for threatened species. Those rules have been vacated by federal courts and President Biden, and the current administration has added regulatory changes to ease efforts to help species adapt to climate change. Yet legislators in both parties are still coming for the ESA, calling it “destructive.”
Public support for the ESA remains high, but the challenges of endangered species protection over the next several decades are daunting. Just this year, 21 species were “delisted” because they are now officially recognized as extinct. Saving biodiversity will take more than preserving the ESA as it currently exists. Now is the time to strengthen and expand it.
A diverse group of endangered species conservation experts convened by the Center for Land, Environment and Natural Resources recently developed a list of concrete recommendations for improving the ESA that, if adopted by policymakers, would yield tremendous benefits for ecosystems and the human communities that they directly support.
First, we must recognize that our limited classification system — a species is either endangered, threatened or recovered — is too coarse. Establishing more objective, biologically based criteria to distinguish among the different categories, identifying different tiers of vulnerability within each category, and tailoring conservation measures based on species vulnerability would strengthen protections. But it would also provide incentives to landowners to reduce threats by taking steps that help move a species into a tier with fewer restrictions.
Next, policymakers should insist that development not impede the recovery prospects of a threatened or endangered species. The law currently accepts that projects may harm a species’ recovery. Changing this rule to require “no net loss” or a “net benefit” for listed species could significantly reduce repeated ecological damage.
Another core issue is the lack of dedicated funding for conservation, including recovery plans. One review found that only 20 percent of mandated recovery is funded. More robust funding for conservation and recovery is essential for protecting the environments where we all work and live. Moreover, recovery plans are “required,” but implementation is not. Policymakers should require progress toward species recovery and allow non-federal entities to enforce recovery plans.
Providing more incentives for recovery and proactive conservation is also vital. The best plans, both ecologically and democratically, have been regional habitat conservation plans. These are collaborative efforts that bring federal, state and local agencies together with community leaders, conservation organizations and landowners to engage in multi-species, ecosystem-level management. They’re reliant on mutual support and build the very long-term relationships that effective conservation requires. They also often include creative incentives for private landowners to advance conservation.
Finally, one of the biggest areas where the ESA can be strengthened is in preparing for ecological change. Though the ESA alone cannot shield ecosystems from all climate effects, more expansively defining what is considered the “foreseeable future” in accordance with sound science and better integrating climate change into vulnerability assessments would help.
And policymakers and scientists need to find ways to employ the ESA and complement it with other conservation laws and funding that actively promote conservation. This includes more conventional strategies like protection of future habitat, invasive species control, proscribed fires, and wildlife corridors. But more proactive strategies like relocation of species, engineering of habitat or even genetic augmentation must also be on the table.
The first 50 years of the ESA clearly demonstrated that biodiversity conservation is vitally important for the well-being of the American people and the natural world. In the next 50 years, we’ll need these conservation efforts to be stronger than ever. We know what needs to be done; We just need our government to act on it.
Alejandro E. Camacho is Chancellor’s Professor of Law and the Faculty Director of the Center for Land, Environment, and Natural Resources at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. He is on the Board of Directors and a Member-Scholar at the Center for Progressive Reform.

webintern@dakdan.com

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