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Endangered Species Act Protection for Overlooked Species

On Endangered Species Day, Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) jointly introduced the “Extinction Prevention Act of 2021,” intended to provide funding for overlooked, less charismatic species on the Endangered Species lists. The bill would provide earmarked funding for conservation of North American butterflies, Pacific Island plants, native freshwater mussels, and Southwest desert fish. For too long, some members of Congress have focused on non-native species, which the U.S. has no authority or ability to conserve, or on game species that already receive extensive funding and support. This is finally a productive bill that opens the door for protecting a few of the hundreds of native species facing significant extinction risk, which rarely (or never) receive funding and technical assistance to support their recovery.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was written to provide federal resources to manage species facing a risk of extinction. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has ample funding and resources, the ESA can be used to protect habitat and take direct management actions to recover populations of endangered or threatened species. Unfortunately, the ESA can also be corrupted to benefit interest groups and a few select species, to the detriment of many more that are equally deserving.

Environmental and animal rights groups have a long history of using the ESA to focus on certain species that are good for fundraising, but do not necessarily require extensive federal intervention to promote recovery. Wolves, bears, and non-native megafauna like gorillas, elephants, and lions have been go-to species for years. 

For example, although the gray wolf has recovered—and the FWS has been trying to delist the species for almost 20 years—animal rights groups advocate for continued listing and send almost daily emails asking their support base to fund the “fight to save wolves.” Yet the species has a stable population at over 4,000 in the lower 48 U.S. states, with tens of thousands more wolves inhabiting Canada and Alaska (where the species has never been listed under the ESA). These groups tie up FWS resources, divert public focus, and often leave smaller, lesser known and less photogenic species behind. 

Take the gopher tortoise, the only tortoise species native to the southeastern U.S. The gopher tortoise is a keystone species in pine forests due to the burrows it digs. These burrows can be up to 40 feet long, and are used by hundreds of species. They also contribute to climate health. This species has a dangerously low population due to development and urbanization in its primary habitats. The eastern population of the gopher tortoise has been on the ESA’s warranted-but-precluded list for close to a decade. The warranted-but-precluded list is composed of species which the FWS has found should be listed as endangered or threatened, but which the FWS cannot list because it lacks funding, personnel, and resources to devote to them. The fact the FWS cannot devote resources to recovering a unique native species like the gopher tortoise, but the recovered status of gray wolves has been debated in the courts for years, is irresponsible, and detrimental to at-risk species across the country. While gray wolves continue to thrive, the gopher tortoise could easily be forgotten and become extinct. 

The Extinction Prevention Act is a step in the right direction to ensure more equal distribution of federal resources to different species. Under this bill, the identified species will each receive 5 million dollars annually for management, conservation, and ecosystem health. The funding can be directed to states, territories, tribal governments, and other relevant entities. But, this effort must be pursued to its fullest extent. If the benefits of the ESA are truly going to aid in species recovery, then the FWS has to have the ability to devote resources to the many species that activist groups do not focus on. And success stories like the gray wolf should be celebrated, but should be allowed to end, so that the mechanisms of the ESA can be used to create more success stories, for species like the gopher tortoise.

SCI encourages the Extinction Prevention Act’s effort to finally pay more attention to species in danger as opposed to exclusive focus on public appeal. The FWS must have the ability to focus on species that legitimately need protection, of which there is no shortage. SCI will continue to fight for proper use of federal resources and leave management of stable species to states and sportsmen and women. 

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