Public Opinion, Science Ignored

The Endangered Species Act is the most important law in the United States for conserving biodiversity and halting the extinction of species. The Trump administration, aided by Citizens United, is poised to cripple the Act to promote fossil fuels, border walls, and other special interests.

Congress passed the ESA in 1973 with strong bipartisan support at the request of a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who believed that existing protections for threatened and endangered species were insufficient.

“This legislation will help protect an irreplaceable part of our natural heritage-threatened wildlife,” Nixon said during the signing ceremony.

Since its passage, the Act has helped reverse steep declines in numerous species, including the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, American alligator and the gray wolf. The Act created a model for similar laws around the world. Species currently under consideration for protections are considered especially at risk, including the North American wolverine and the monarch butterfly.

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More than 700 animals and almost 1,000 plants in the U.S. are shielded by the law. Hundreds more are under consideration for protections. Fewer than 100 species have been taken off the threatened and endangered lists, either because they were deemed recovered or, in at least 10 cases, went extinct.

Individual species aside, the Act’s habitat requirements have also produced great gains for entire ecosystems. Conservation efforts for the spotted owl, the marbled murrelet, and the coastal California gnatcatcher, for example, have saved millions of acres of old growth forest and open space from logging and commercial development. Efforts to save the wood stork and Florida panther have helped nourish the Everglades.

The Act’s three main purposes include:

  • Identify species that need to be listed as endangered (headed toward extinction) or threatened (likely to become endangered);
  • Designate habitat necessary for the species’ survival; and
  • Nurture the process until the species have not just survived but recovered in sustainable numbers.

The ESA provided sweeping protection for endangered species and their habitats, reflecting the era’s broad based concern for environmental conservation and protection. Its protections often have a spiraling effect, benefiting full habitats and the animals and plants within them. Recent polls show that 90 percent of Americans, including Republicans, support the ESA.

The Act has been celebrated by conservationists for protecting our natural heritage. In equal measure, it has been reviled by developers, ranchers, miners, loggers and oil and gas interests for elevating the needs of ecosystems over the demands of corporations and profit maximization.

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Nevertheless, criticism of the law has been a persistent feature of debates about whether and how to protect imperiled species. That criticism often comes from business and agricultural interests, who argue that the Act’s provisions excessively limit their ability to develop and manage private property.

Such criticisms led to a proposal by the Trump Administration this week to severely curtail the scope of the Act. And they have prompted recent congressional hearings and raised concern that support for the law may be waning. Despite its popularity, special interests have hijacked the ESA. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United readied the first special interest assault on the ESA.

The Center for Biological Diversity documents how Republicans (many with ties to oil and gas and big agriculture) ramped up legislative attacks on the act in the years following the court’s decision in Citizens United. In addition to direct challenges, Republican efforts also included shadowy riders in must-pass spending or defense bills as a way to override the ESA’s protections. These types of riders have reduced or removed protections for the gray wolf, lesser prairie chicken, sage grouse, several African trophy animals, and more.

Some members of Congress have proposed legislation to weaken the Act’s protections – and these proposals appear to be increasing. The Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group that supports protections for endangered species, analyzed congressional voting records and found that from the 1990s until 2010, a typical year saw roughly five proposals to amend the Act or otherwise curtail some of its protections.

Then, in 2011 the number of proposed bills to amend the Act jumped to 30 and has continued to increase. In the past two years, there have been nearly 150 such efforts aimed at weakening the Act. Sponsors of such legislation have not been shy about the goals of their efforts. In a report tracking legislation through 2015, five Republican legislators with ties to special interests led about 25 percent of the efforts against the ESA.

But threats to the Act are not limited to congressional actions. The Act has also been weakened by rule changes (which prescribe how to carry out the Act) adopted by the agencies charged with administering it, the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. One change adopted in 2016 effectively redefines endangerment in a way that could dramatically lower the standard for what measures are required to recover endangered species.

In 2015 the Obama administration proposed revising policy concerning the listing of endangered species. The proposal effectively made it harder for citizens to petition to list a species for ESA protections. 

The election of President Trump in 2016 along with a Republican-led Congress has emboldened even more aggressive attacks on the ESA. In 2017, the Republican-controlled Congress introduced numerous pieces of legislation attacking and weakening the ESA. In powerful attacks to gut the ESA, current bills in Congress would, among other things, grant the Fish and Wildlife Service authority to deny protections based on economic considerations (rather than based solely on scientific findings as is required), limit legal recourse for enforcing protections, and turn fossil fuel development on federal land over to states as a way to exempt federal ESA review.

The Trump administration has also attacked the ESA. Without regard to environmental impacts, Trump’s ill-founded border wall would destroy habitats and put many threatened and endangered species at risk. Approximately 50 at-risk species that live near the border have so far survived due to efforts by people on both sides of the border. Ocelots, black bears, desert bighorn sheep, Sonoran pronghorn antelope, desert tortoises, birds and many more endangered species face existential threats from being separated and isolated from populations due to a Border Wall. Similarly, the border wall threat to the jaguar, considered an apex predator critical to survival of other species, would put an entire ecological system at risk.

jaguar endangered species

The administration’s ignorant approach to climate science also fundamentally undermines the ESA. Scientists recognize that more species are at risk today than ever before because of climate change’s long term impact on sea-level rise, ice melt and freshwater destruction. Yet, in applications to address 25 threatened species, Trump’s Interior Department disregarded accepted science and used short-term projections of threats and alleged “uncertainty” and “speculation” about long-term impacts of climate change to justify its refusal to list any of the 25 as endangered or threatened.

Finally, the administration has slashed budget spending for the Fish and Wildlife Service in general, which will undercut resources available to protect endangered species (more than 500 species of which are waiting for a protection determination and are at risk of extinction now).

Even Republican legislators disregarded Trump’s proposed cuts to a specific ESA program – the Endangered Species Conservation Fund, a crucial program providing grants to states for conservation planning and projects.

The anti-ESA movement under Trump and this Republican Congress will have unfortunate longstanding consequences. Motivated by Citizens United special interest money, their long-term, full on assault of the ESA jeopardizes a wealth of different animal and plant species along with rich bio-diverse habitats all for the benefit of their short-term special interests.

In 2014, we conducted a survey of 1,287 Americans, gathering data on a variety of topics related to wildlife conservation, including support for the Act. We also gathered data from previously published studies and public polls. We found four studies or polls that assess support for the ESA spanning roughly two decades, and combined them to assess public attitudes about the Act over time.

Collectively, results indicate support for the Act has been remarkably stable over the past 20 years. Average support in the three most recent studies, conducted in 2011, 2014 and 2015, was statistically indistinguishable from the earliest study, conducted in 1996.

The data show that more than 4 in 5 Americans support the Endangered Species Act, while roughly 1 in 10 oppose it.

In contrast to the often-repeated statement that the Act is controversial, data suggests that support for the law among the general population is robust and has remained so for at least two decades.

Furthermore, while some issues – for example, gun control and climate change – have become increasingly partisan, our data indicate that both self-identified conservatives as well as liberals strongly supported the ESA. Though liberals (90 percent) were more supportive of the Act than conservatives (74 percent), we found nearly 3 in 4 conservatives supported the Act, and only 15 percent opposed the law.

Agricultural and property rights advocates have long criticized the ESA, but our results show support for the ESA transcended interest groups, including agriculture (71 percent) and property rights (69 percent). This result may be explained, in part, by research showing that interest group leaders sometimes hold more extreme views than their members.

Some conservation professionals believe that continued protections for controversial species such as gray wolves could erode support for the Act and the species the law protects. If that were so, one might anticipate less support for the Act in places where such species were listed over long periods.

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However, our results show that support for the Act, trust in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that administers the Act and attitudes toward wolves are equivalent in places where wolves are protected by the Act and places where wolves don’t live, and hence, are not protected.

Our results raise the question: If support for the Act transcends political ideology, party, region of the country, and even interest group – why are congressional efforts to weaken the Act increasing? Some insight may come from political scientists who have shown that “average citizens and mass-based interest groups” have little to no influence on a wide range of policy issues.

Rather, the research suggests, policy outcomes in America are heavily influenced by economic elites and industry have greater influence and access among policymakers. This could also explain why legislators routinely neglect their campaign promises on environmental protection, which erodes the link between public opinion and public policy.

According to records compiled by the Center for Biological Diversity, as of late April 2018 there are more than 50 bills that would, if passed into law, weaken the Act in one form or another. Whether such legislation can be passed in the face of overwhelming public support remains to be seen.

According to the study, the ESA is commonly portrayed in a manner that is inconsistent with how the Act is viewed among the American public. Indeed our results show that support for the ESA generally was high-even among those who self‐identify with the special interests who sometimes vehemently oppose ESA protections. Further, contrary to the predictions of some conservationists, protecting controversial species such as the gray wolf does not appear to undermine support for the ESA in regions where that species is protected. Our results have widespread application for conservation policy. Specifically, they suggest that conservationists should not assume that protecting species-even where politically controversial-will undermine support for biodiversity conservation policies, nor support for those who administer such policies. In addition, concerted efforts by legislators to undermine or minimize policies should not be taken as an indication of public opposition. Beyond conservation, our results may be of value to political wonks who seek to understand why governments and public officials are more responsive to the special interests of a few than the will of most citizens.

Last week came the administration’s own proposals, announced by David Bernhardt, the deputy secretary of the Interior Department. Mr. Bernhardt said the changes would streamline the regulatory process. Unfortunately, several proposals threaten biodiversity and endangered species.

“It essentially turns every listing of a species into a negotiation,” said Noah Greenwald with the Center for Biological Diversity. “They could decide that building in a species’ habitat or logging in trees where birds nest doesn’t constitute harm.”

If Zinke wanted broad public support for reform, he would learn from former presidents Clinton and Obama, who persuaded state governments, landowners and industry to collaborate to save species before they become threatened and endangered. The Obama administration worked with states and private parties to protect millions of acres of habitat across 10 Western states. The move helped save the greater sage grouse without making an ESA listing necessary.

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