The success of the Endangered Species Act is plain to the millions of Americans who have enjoyed seeing a bald eagle fly across the sky, heard the howl of wolves echo across the night or witnessed the splash of a breaching humpback whale.
But this bedrock conservation law, the strongest of any nation, has saved far more species than these well-known examples.
A new study, which I co-authored, found the Act has saved roughly 99 percent of protected species from extinction since the law was created in 1973.
The Pecos sunflower, St. Andrew beach mouse, California condor and Peninsular bighorn sheep are among the hundreds of species that owe their existence to the Endangered Species Act.
Of more than 1,700 species in the U.S. listed as threatened and endangered, just four have been confirmed as extinct following their protection, and another 22 are possibly extinct.
For comparison, the study found that a total of 291 species would have been expected to go extinct without the Endangered Species Act.
Species are not just being saved from extinction. Hundreds of endangered species are bouncing back thanks to the Act, including 39 that have been fully recovered and removed from the endangered species list.
Take California’s Channel Islands foxes as an example. Just 12 years after these diminutive foxes were protected as endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — the agency charged with preserving imperiled wildlife — declared the successful recovery of three out of four unique subspecies on San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz islands. And the Santa Catalina Island fox, the fourth subspecies, improved from endangered to threatened.
John Muir famously observed that when “one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” Perhaps nothing highlights this more than the plight of the island fox.
The foxes’ numbers plummeted in the late 1990s to fewer than 20 for two of the subspecies and not much more for the others. The primary cause was predation by golden eagles, which were only able to colonize the islands because of the loss of bald eagles to DDT poisoning and the introduction of pigs and other animals that provided prey for the golden eagles.
After the foxes were protected under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and others worked together to captive-breed the foxes, relocate golden eagles and remove pigs, all leading to recovery.
The foxes now number in the thousands.
Despite these successes, too many species have been lost – too often because we did not act quickly enough to save them. This includes 71 species listed as threatened and endangered that most likely were already extinct when protections were applied, and another 47 that went extinct waiting for protection. Among these are the Caribbean monk seal, eastern cougar and ivory-billed woodpecker.
The Fish and Wildlife Service currently has a backlog of more than 500 species waiting for protection decisions. Yet the Trump administration and recently confirmed U.S. Department of the Interior secretary and former industry lobbyist David Bernhardt are sitting on their hands.
To date, the administration has protected just 17 species – the fewest in the first two years of any administration since Ronald Reagan’s.