15 September 2011

Upcoming Congress anti-environmental agenda threatens endangered species act

As of September 14, 2011, there are 1380 species of animals on the U.S. Endangered Species List. The primary threats to the animals and plants under protected status are habitat destruction, climate change, agriculture (i.e. oil or natural gas development) and exploitation (hunting, harvesting.) Since 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has worked based upon independent science, a standard established to minimize political influence—many of the species guarded by the ESA also slow land development for oil and natural gas, or increase environmental accountability for businesses. However, the fall 2011 session of Congress seeks to cut the protections of the ESA, largely in favor of the oil and energy business sector.

Human-caused extinction of animal species has hit the evolutionary fast-forward button; species are disappearing from the Earth more rapidly than the previous sixty-five million years. Those at most risk to extinction are the species that depend on their surrounding environment; polar bears are dependent on ice flows to hunt, sleep, and migrate, for example. In the recent decades, climate change has had a destructive effect on the natural habitat of the polar bear, leading to the species placement on the Endangered Species Act in 2008.

This, as some may claim, is not natural selection (or the often used, “survival of the fittest.”) Natural selection is the decline of a species or characteristic of a species (blue eyes, for example, or beak shape,) when there is more than a single variation of an animal. An example of natural selection is two types of the same snake, each with a different color of body (one red, and one green.) The red snake will be less likely to survive if its color makes it more obvious to predators—eventually, the green snake becomes dominant. Natural selection is not hunting one species to extinction, or destroying their habitat.

The U.S. Endangered Species Act protects those animals and plants of which are in danger of disappearing in the immediate future (i.e. now.) The ESA also establishes protections for those species threatened (an endangered status is probable.) Congress has politicized the preservation of species that are at extreme risk—short term, capital gain from oil and agriculture donations trumps concern for the survival of animals on the brink of extinction. Earlier this year, Congress directly intervened in the ESA and removed the gray wolf from protected status in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

The removal of the gray wolf from ESA protection created precedent, the first time such an action had been successful. Such a precedent allows back-room bidding wars for agriculture to undermining status of species standing in the way of oil or natural gas development—the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve is one such example. This fall, Congress is preparing to introduce H.R. 1287, known as the Domestic Jobs, Domestic Energy, and Deficit Reduction Act of 2011 (3-D,) one of thirteen bills and amendments stripping the ESA of its ability to protect the species at the greatest risk. A few of the measures putting animal and environmental protections in peril,
  • H.R 1287 (S.706,) the 3-D Act: targets the California Bay-Delta, removing the federal and state government’s ability to supplement water to the Bay-Delta habitats. H.R. 1287 blocks the government from protecting dislocated species (i.e. habitat destroyed by climate change,) and species cannot be added to the ESA because of dislocation. Stranger still, H.R. 1287 gained co-sponsorship by David Vitter, Republican Representative of Louisiana (otherwise known as the state most affected by the largest oil spill in the history of the Earth.) H.R. 1287 would also open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil production, where over a dozen species face extreme risk of extinction.
  • H.R. 1806, the Bluefin Tuna Fisherman Employment Preservation Act: removes the Bluefin tuna from protected status and blocks it from any further protection under the ESA.
  • H.R. 1819, the State Wildlife Management Act of 2011: strips the gray wolf of protected status from the ESA.
The Defenders of Wildlife wrote a thorough report on each bill, amendment, and their specific threats, Assault on Wildlife: The Endangered Species Under Attack. The Representatives sponsoring the thirteen strikes against the ESA have taken a combined $5.9 million in campaign contributions—the Defenders of Wildlife did the homework here from the independent Center for Responsible Politics, Opensecrets.org (see page 28 of the Defenders’ report.)

For the first time since President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, Congress is actively seeking to undermine what has successfully prevented the extinction of hundreds of plant and animal species. Visit the Defenders of Wildlife page Oppose Extinction: Take a Stand for Wildlife, where you may learn more about the upcoming House Bills, amendments, and how you can make a difference.

Nathan Rivas
Nathan is a passionate animal advocate and vegan in the Seattle-area, who lives with a crazed dachshund, an enormous Maine coon and a judgemental short haired black cat. Nathan graduated with a Bachelors of Science (summa cum laude) from Northeastern University. In his experience, writing about science is sometimes much more enjoyable than working in the science field, giving a closer look to how science issues are addressed in the media. He is preparing for his Masters of Science program in the fall, and likes to make jokes that involve the chemical compound arsole (and is totally addicted to gardein.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/kevinwburkett