We are observing the most coordinated set of attacks on the Endangered Species Act since it was signed into law nearly a half century ago.
The latest series of assaults – from legislation introduced in Congress to proposed changes by the Trump administration – fall into the increasingly perilous partisan trap that pits industrial and economic interests against the environment and public health.
This two-sided narrative consistently drowns out moderate voices in national media coverage and has created an illusion of broad disagreement around the ESA that simply does not exist.
Recent surveys show that 83 percent of Americans support the ESA, including 74 percent of conservatives.
That’s a lot of bipartisan support. Yet House legislators and the Trump administration are pushing extreme proposals that cater to the political whims of a few special interests.
Americans deserve better. Here are six actions that will improve protections for wildlife, preserve our outdoor heritage and strengthen local communities.
1. Keep species off the endangered species list.
The ESA currently operates too much like an emergency room, without sufficient preventative care. Any effort to improve the ESA should focus resources and attention on species before they reach the brink of extinction, at which point the cost of care spikes and the chances of success diminish. Put simply, we need to do more to keep species off the endangered species list in the first place.
2. Increase funding, from more funding sources.
As president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation Collin O’Mara put it, “The greatest barrier to wildlife conservation in our nation is the chronic under investment in proactive, on-the-ground collaborative conservation.” I couldn’t agree more. We need to stop hamstringing the act and then saying it’s not working. Instead, let’s find new and innovative ways to increase funding for proactive, on-the-ground collaborative conservation.
3. Remove unnecessary delays.
Not only do we need to put conservation on the ground sooner, we need to do it faster. There are many innovative programs like Safe Harbor agreements, Habitat Conservation Plans and Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances that have worked well to put conservation on the ground, but paperwork and procedures can slow down the process by months and even years. Wildlife – not to mention American taxpayers – can’t afford these delays.
4. Reduce burdens on private landowners.
We have to acknowledge that the ESA has historically placed a disproportionate allocation of burdens on private landowners – the farmers, ranchers and foresters who manage two-thirds of our nation’s land. This has created a disincentive for these essential stewards to protect species – the kind we hear about in conservation lore of landowners shooting endangered species on their property. We don’t want landowners to “shoot, shovel and shut up.” We want them to protect and restore habitat, enjoy wildlife sightings and brag to their neighbors. But we don’t ask farmers to grow our food for free, and we can’t expect them to grow habitat for endangered species for free.
5. Increase inclusion and collaboration.
Sometimes the solution is simpler than you think. We’ve learned that giving stakeholders a seat at the table – an opportunity to be a part of the conservation planning – goes a long way towards designing a conservation plan that has broad support and community buy-in. We’ve seen this in the Southeast, where a massive collaborative conservation effort has been underway to save the longleaf pine forest ecosystem, which benefits countless wildlife including the red-cockaded woodpecker and gopher tortoise. We need more of this.
6. Increase focus on key ecosystems and landscapes.
We need to target investments in the key landscapes that can protect multiple species at once and support key ecosystem services. My colleagues at Environmental Defense Fund are currently leading an effort to recover the monarch butterfly that is focused on restoring native prairie in the Corn Belt, southern Great Plains and Central Valley of California. By focusing on the larger prairie ecosystem and key landscapes, this effort will have benefits far beyond butterflies and bees, including improving crop pollination, reducing nutrient pollution and sequestering carbon.
If not Trump, who?
Fortunately, there are policymakers who have exhibited a willingness to lead and take part in a balanced, bipartisan process to advance collaborative conservation solutions like the ones I’ve described.
Wyoming Governor Matt Mead has shown great leadership along with other western governors in bringing together multiple and diverse stakeholders to the table over the last several years to discuss ways to improve conservation through the ESA.
Notably, the Western Governors’ Association released a policy resolution in 2017 stating that “the ESA can only be reauthorized through legislation developed in a fashion that results in broad bipartisan support and maintains the intent of the ESA to protect and recover imperiled species.”
It’s in this spirit that my EDF colleagues continue to work with western governors and various agriculture, industry, outdoor recreation and other conservation groups to advance a dialogue around improving the ESA that transcends partisan politics and election cycles.
I am hopeful that these will be the discussions that create meaningful and long-lasting change, unlike Trump’s overhaul that is completely misaligned with core American values.