Ashley Wilson, a biologist, carefully untangled a bat in netting over a river lined with trees and examined the furry mammal under her headlamp. She sighed, “Another brown bat.”
Wilson and his colleagues had caught many of this type on summer nights while exploring the countryside in southern Michigan. They were searching for Indiana and Northern long-eared Bats that are becoming increasingly rare. These bats migrate to Michigan for the birthing season.
Scientists had not yet spotted either species as they set out on a netting mission.
It’s not a good idea if you don’t catch any. Allen Kurta is a professor at Eastern Michigan University who has been studying bats for over 40 years.
The Endangered Species Act is the U.S. foundational law that aims to prevent animal and plant species from dying out. It was enacted in 1973 to protect iconic animals such as the gray wolf, grizzly and bald eagle.
Over 99% of the species listed as “endangered”, or on the brink of extinction, have survived.
In an interview with Associated Press, Interior Secretary Deb haaland stated that “The Endangered Species act has been very effective.” “I believe that it has made us a much better place.”
Environmental advocates and scientists agree that the law is as important as ever 50 years after it was passed. Worldwide, habitat loss, pollution and climate change are putting 1 million species at risk.
The law is so controversial, that Congress doesn’t update it since 1992. Some worry that it won’t survive another half century.
Conservative governments and lawmakers are intensifying their efforts to weaken the act. They have been backed by industry and landowner groups who claim that it stifles economic growth and property rights. Members of Congress are increasingly overruling government experts when it comes to protecting specific species.
Bruce Westerman is an Arkansas Republican who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources. He announced in July that a group GOP legislators would be proposing changes.
Environmentalists claim that regulators are slow to list new items to appease critics, and Congress is providing too little funding for the Act’s mission.
Jamie Rappaport Clark is the president of Defenders of Wildlife, a group that advocates for wildlife.
Experts say that the survival of the law depends on regaining bipartisan support. This is not an easy task, especially in these polarized days.
Tom Carper, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee during a debate on the Senate floor in May about whether or not the northern long-eared Bat should retain its status as protected species granted in 2022.
“We know that biodiversity should be preserved for many reasons. Whether it is to protect the health of humans or to fulfill a moral obligation to be good stewards to our only and one planet.
Despite Delaware Democrat’s appeal, the Senate voted against the endangered bat designation. Opponents said that disease and not economic development was the primary cause of the population decline.
This is a bad sign, said Kurta, the Michigan scientist, as he donned waders and sloshed across the muddy river bottom in mid-June for the bat netting project.
He said that the population of this species had dropped by 90% in just a short time. If that doesn’t put you on the endangered species listing, then what will?
Holly Doremus is a law professor at the University of California Berkeley. She said that attitudes towards law have changed in a way that’s “absolutely astounding”. This is largely because people didn’t realize how far they would go.
In 1950, iconic animals such as the American alligator and California condor were a focus of attention. Some species were pushed to their limits by habitat destruction and pollutants like DDT. Some species were over-harvested or targeted as nuisances.
The 1973 measure made illegal the “harassment, harm, pursuit, hunt, shoot wound, kill or capture” of listed animals or plants, or their habitats.
The order forbade federal agencies from authorizing or funding actions that could jeopardize the existence of those agencies. However, amendments allowed later permits for incidental “take” (inadvertent killing) resulting from otherwise lawful projects.
In retrospect, the act passed Congress with a stunning ease. The Senate approved it unanimously and the House voted 390-12. Richard Nixon, the Republican president, signed it as law.
Rebecca Hardin is an environmental anthropologist at the University of Michigan. We felt as a nation that we had caused damage and needed to heal.
The law prompted regulation of oil and natural gas development, logging and ranching, among other industries. The list of endangered species grew to include a wide range of creatures, from the frosted-flatwoods salamander and the tooth cave spider to nearly 1,000 plants.
Doremus stated that it was easy to convince everyone to support the protection of whales and bears. “But people did not anticipate that things that they would not notice or would not think beautiful would need to be protected in a way that would hinder some economic activity.”
A small Southeastern fish called the snail darter was involved in an early battle that delayed construction on a Tennessee Dam. The river it lived on at the time was considered to be its only home.
In 1990, the listing of the northern spotted-owl as threatened sparked a feud between conservationists over forest management in the Pacific Northwest.
Rappaport Clark was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which was headed by President Bill Clinton.
She said, “Fast forward to today and the support has dropped pretty dramatically.” The atmosphere is extremely partisan. The difference between a slim Democratic majority and a blown-up law is a thin Democratic majority in Senate.
The Trump administration ended blanket animal protections for those animals that were newly classified as threatened. The federal authorities were allowed to consider the economic costs of protecting animals and ignore habitat impacts due to climate change.
A federal judge blocked Trump’s actions. Biden’s administration has repealed some laws or announced plans to do so.
The Senate, with the exception of a few Democrats who defected from the party, voted narrowly in the spring to remove protections for the rare lesser prairie chicken and the northern long-eared frog. In July, the House voted to do likewise.
Joe Biden has threatened to veto the bill. To wildlife advocates, however, the votes show the vulnerability of the act — not only to repeal but also to weaken it through legislative, administrative or court action.
A bill pending would prevent additional listings that could cause “significant” harm to the economy. One bill would ban the addition of any additional listings that could cause “significant” economic harm.
Mike Leahy is a senior director at the National Wildlife Federation. He said, “Science should be the basic principle for managing endangered species.” Politics is increasingly taking over. “This is the worst nightmare for every wildlife conservationist.”
Elusive middle ground
Federal regulators are caught between the interests of industry and property owners, and deciding how many species to protect under this act.
Since the law went into effect, 64 species of approximately 1,780 U.S. listed species have recovered enough to be removed while 64 improved from threatened to endangered. Eleven species have been declared extinct. A label has also been proposed for 23 other species, including the ivory billed woodpecker.
Jonathan Wood, vice-president of law and policies at the Property and Environment Research Center (which represents landowners), said that this was a poor performance.
Wood explained that the act was meant to be like an emergency room in a hospital, which provides life-saving treatment but only for a short time. It is more like a perpetual hospice for many species.
Noah Greenwald is the director of endangered species at the Center for Biological Diversity.
He said that they can often wait a decade for a listing decision, which worsens their condition and delays their recovery. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently considering more than 300 species.
Greenwald stated that the service was “not doing its job.” The lack of funds is a part of it, but there’s also a mixture of timidity and fear of backlash.
Officials at the agency admit that they are struggling to keep pace with proposals for listing species and strategies of restoring them. Budgets are tight and the work is complicated. There are many petitions and lawsuits. Congress gives millions of dollars to save popular animals like Pacific salmon and steelhead, while other species only get a few thousands.
Supporters of the act suggest that to address this problem and appease critics of the federal government, more money be allocated for conservation programs at the state and tribal levels. In 2022, a bill that would have provided $1.4 billion per year was passed by the House bipartisanly but failed in the Senate. Sponsors are trying to do it again.
Martha Williams, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, told a House Subcommittee that funds from Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act are being used to improve strategies so species can be removed sooner.
It is also looking for a solution to another difficult issue: providing sufficient space so that endangered species can feed and shelter, as well as reproduce.
The act allows the government to designate “critical habitats” that can limit economic development. Doremus, a professor at California-Berkeley, stated that many early supporters thought public lands and water — state and federal parks and wildlife reserves — would be sufficient to meet the needs.
About two thirds of the listed species are now on private property. Many species require ongoing care. The Kirtland’s warbler was removed from the endangered species list in 2019. This removal was dependent on the continued harvesting of Michigan Jack pines, where the tiny songbird nests.
Wood, from the landowners’ group, explained that to meet the increasing demand, more agreements will be needed with property owners, rather than critical habitat designations which reduce property values and cause resentment. Owners could be compensated or restrictions on development and timber cutting eased as species recover.
He said that you can’t force your way to cooperation.
Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed changes to regulations this year in order to encourage voluntary actions. They hope that these efforts will keep more species healthy and allow them to reduce their listings. Environmentalists, however, insist that voluntary action does not substitute for legally enforced protections.
Did the DDT manufacturers stop producing it voluntarily? Greenwald said that few landowners and businesses would sacrifice their profits for the sake of the environment. We need strong laws and regulations to tackle the climate and extinction crisis and to leave a planet that is livable for future generations.
The only light in the night was provided by fireflies and stars after Michigan biologists Kurta & Wilson stretched fine nylon mesh across the smoothly flowing River Raisin 90 minutes to the west of Detroit. Crickets chirped; frogs croaked. Bats were engrossed in the buzzing mayflies.
Bats, once feared, are now valued by Americans for their ability to pollinate fruit and eat insects that destroy crops. This boosts agriculture in the U.S. by $3 billion a year.
Kurta, who was tinkering around with an electronic device to detect bats, said: “The next time that you drink tequila thank the bat for pollinating the agave plants from which tequila is made.”
The hours slipped by. Eight bats flew into the nets. Scientists took measurements and then released them. The scientists found no endangered species.
Kurta reported a month later that 16 nights of netting at eight sites yielded 177 bats, but only one Indiana and none northern long-eared species.
He said that the outcome was “expected” but “disappointing”.