Anyone who loves Maine and its rich and abundant wildlife should be a strong supporter of the Endangered Species Act, our nation’s most important and successful wildlife conservation law. It protects not only specific endangered and threatened animal and plant species but habitats and ecosystems as well.
The act has not only been very effective, but it is also a popular law that enjoys strong public support from across the political spectrum. Yet, this law is under attack in Congress.
Here’s how it works. The act distinguishes between “endangered” and “threatened” species. “Endangered” species are at risk of becoming extinct, whereas “threatened” species are at risk of becoming “endangered” in the foreseeable future. Species are listed based on decisions by scientific experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service arising from their own technical assessments or in response to a public petition.
The federal government is then required to prepare a recovery plan for restoring the species. The beauty of the Endangered Species Act, in addition to being based on science, is that it creates strong partnerships between the states and federal government.
The act has had a remarkable 99 percent success rate, helping hundreds of listed species avoid extinction, including nine currently listed animal species and three plant species in Maine. Moreover, a number of listed species have recovered enough to be able to be delisted.
Among the rescued wildlife species is the bald eagle, our national symbol since 1782, benefiting from the banning of DDT and the protection provided by the act. In fact, the act was largely inspired by the plight of this magnificent bird. Right here in Maine, the act helped the bald eagle recover from 30 nesting pairs in 1978 to about 630 pairs in 2013, when it was delisted, and now this state offers some of the best bald eagle viewing in the nation.
Every time I see a bald eagle while kayaking on Penobscot Bay I am reminded of the importance of the Endangered Species Act.
The act isn’t just a success story in Maine. This landmark conservation law has helped to protect wildlife across the country and rescued such disparate species as the manatee, the California condor, the whooping crane and the gray wolf.
Despite its popularity and success, the Endangered Species Act is continuously facing efforts in Congress to water down the law and make it less effective at protecting endangered and threatened species. Some of these efforts would affect the law broadly, while others would target specific species or regions of the country.
One sustained effort aimed at undermining the act would transfer management authority over endangered and threatened species to the states. Some proposals would remove federal protections for specific species — such as the threatened Preble’s meadow jumping mouse — and allow the states to manage them, even if science indicates that heightened protections are required to prevent extinction.
Other bills like the Endangered Species Management Self-Determination Act would go much further. It would effectively eliminate federal protections for endangered and threatened species unless Congress approves new listing decisions through a joint resolution. It would also let the governors of affected states veto listing decisions. This would shift responsibility for conserving and recovering these vulnerable species to the states.
Unfortunately, most states lack the necessary funding and legal authority to adequately protect endangered and threatened species. In fact, not a single state has available the full array of recovery measures provided by the existing federal act. While Maine has a state version of the law that provides some important recovery measures, it only protects animals — not plants.
It would be a huge mistake to weaken the Endangered Species Act, especially at a time when its importance is actually increasing because of the growing threat from climate change. (In fact, in 2008 the polar bear became the first species to be listed because of this threat.) For our own sake and that of our children and grandchildren, we must safeguard the act.
Endangered and threatened species cannot speak up for themselves. It is up to us to protect them, and their best hope is for the Endangered Species Act to be maintained as it is with continued strong support from an informed public.
With the most serious political challenges coming from the Senate, we need Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King to stand firm and protect this all-important conservation tool of last resort from itself becoming extinct.
Sam Thompson formerly worked on nuclear arms control and nuclear power issues at the Energy and State Departments, as well as at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency in Paris. He lives in Islesboro.