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Down to Earth: Defending the Endangered Species Act

Defending the Endangered Species Act
A Down to Earth Interview With
Legislative Counsel Marjorie Mulhall

Marjorie Mulhall is a legislative counsel on Earthjustice's Policy & Legislation team, located in Washington, D.C. She works with Congress and federal agencies to protect the Endangered Species Act and prevent legislative rollback of our legal victories.

Marjorie spoke with National Press Secretary Kari Birdseye in November of 2013.

The Endangered Species Act Under Attack

Kari Birdseye: How has the Endangered Species Act been under attack in Washington, D.C. and who is attacking?

ESA Advocate
Marjorie Mulhall

Title

Legislative Counsel

Office

Policy & Legislation
(Washington, D.C.)

Year Started at Earthjustice

2011

Endangered Species Worked to Protect

West Coast Salmon, Delta Smelt, Gray Wolves, Grizzly Bears, & more

Ecosystems Worked to Protect

Pacific Northwest River Systems,
California Bay Delta, Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, & more

Quote

"I am amazed at the variety of life on this planet and I'm really deeply troubled by the idea that we humans can render other species extinct for the sake of short-term economic gain. That's happening worldwide with plant and animal species disappearing at a very alarming rate. I think we can and must do better than that."

Marjorie Mulhall: Most of the attacks on the Endangered Species Act come from those who use either actual or perceived economic challenges as a means to justify undermining or gutting our environmental safeguards. That's a real shame because these attacks deeply underestimate our ability to prosper while also preserving our natural heritage. Some of the main opponents of the ESA have included big agricultural interests, oil and gas industries, the pesticide manufacturing industry, land developers among others. These industries often don't like having to comply with species safeguards that are built into the Endangered Species Act. They argue that species protections hurt their bottom line.

But the truth is that the ESA is incredibly straightforward and flexible and it certainly allows for development and for economic growth. The Act has been in place now for 40 years and in that time many developments and other projects have moved forward. But thanks to the ESA, federal agencies and others involved with those projects have been tasked with helping ensure that common sense safeguards are built into those projects to help minimize impacts on some of our nation's most vulnerable species.

Kari: How are the most recent attacks on the Act playing out?

Marjorie: The attacks we are defending against fall into a few main categories.

Firstly, there have been attacks on federal protections for a particular species. These attacks are really troubling in that under the Endangered Species Act, decisions about which species ought to get federal protections are to be based purely on science not at all on politics.

Most of the attacks on the Endangered Species Act come from those who use either actual or perceived economic challenges as a means to justify undermining or gutting our environmental safeguards … These attacks deeply underestimate our ability to prosper while also preserving our natural heritage.

– Marjorie Mulhall
Legislative Counsel

Some of the species that are most likely to be targeted to be thrown off the Ark, so to speak, by some of these congressional attacks are those species that happen to live near resources that corporate interests want to be able to develop. For instance, we've been seeing congressional amendments and some bills that would block Endangered Species Act protections for the Dunes Sage Brush Lizard, and for the Lesser Prairie Chicken, which are two species that live in the American southwest, near areas that are of interest to the oil and gas industries.

Secondly, in terms of categories of ESA attacks we've seen are attacks on species protections in an entire geographic region. An example of this is the Columbia/Snake river system in the Pacific Northwest. There are more than 200 dams in that river system that really thwart the salmon runs that come up through those rivers. For years, Earthjustice has worked to better protect imperiled salmon in those rivers from the effects of these dams, particularly from four dams that are on the Snake river in eastern Washington state that are really driving salmon native to that river toward the very brink of extinction. Unfortunately, some recent congressional attacks have focused on preventing salmon protections in the Columbia/Snake river system from being implemented.

Clouds moving on the U.S. Capitol building in March 2013. The Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, is arguably the strongest of our nation's environmental laws—and supported by the vast majority of Americans.

Architect of the Capitol

Third and finally, we've seen legislative attacks on key portions of the ESA itself. A few specific examples there have been efforts to undermine citizens' ability to ensure the Act is actually enforced by the government. We've also seen efforts that would undermine requirements in the Act that federal agencies work with federal wildlife experts to help minimize the impacts of their actions on endangered species. There have been some additional efforts that would undermine other key portions of the law as well.

Kari: These recent attacks are not unprecedented. We can go back and look at what Representative Pombo did with the legislation he proposed.

Marjorie: Unfortunately attacks on the Endangered Species Act are nothing new as you just indicated. The Act is one of the most effective environmental laws ever enacted so it's not altogether surprising that it has been a target of anti-environmental interests during past congresses too. In 2005, Representative Pombo of California introduced a bill that was just a full-frontal assault on the Endangered Species Act. Mr. Pombo's bill cut huge holes in the safety net that the Endangered Species Act provides for imperiled species. As an example, that bill repealed the requirement for designating habitat that is critical to species listed under the Act. Fortunately, the Pombo bill never actually became law but it did pass the House of Representatives. That effort by Mr. Pombo and the others who supported that bill still serves as a reminder of just where some in Congress would like to go with weakening or gutting the Endangered Species Act if given the chance.

Kari: Have there been attacks on the ESA since it was enacted?

When the Act was first enacted, it was with incredible bi-partisan support … There was broad agreement across both sides of the aisle at that time that this was an important thing to do and that it was the right thing to do for America to help protect our natural heritage.

– Marjorie Mulhall
Legislative Counsel

Marjorie: Certainly it seems as though over the past years perhaps there has been an uptick. When the Act was first enacted, it was with incredible bi-partisan support. This is a bill that was signed into law by a Republican president, Richard Nixon. And I think there was broad agreement across both sides of the aisle at that time that this was an important thing to do and that it was the right thing to do for America to help protect our natural heritage.

Over the years, unfortunately, there seems to be a sense that this is a partisan issue and among some circles protecting species is no longer a popular issue, among some decision-makers at least. But what we are enormously aided by is the fact that the overwhelmingly majority of the American public still very much supports the Endangered Species Act and what it sets out to do. In that sense, it has been a great positive in terms of helping combat attacks on the Act here in D.C.

Protecting Species and Ecosystems

Kari: Which species are a priority for your work now?

Marjorie: My work here in D.C. very much ties into the work of our Earthjustice attorneys, who fight in court to protect a variety of natural ecosystems. As an example, for a very long time now, Earthjustice has worked to protect the California Bay Delta, which is the largest estuary on the West coast in both North and South America. The Bay Delta is an incredibly important ecosystem. It provides habitat for hundreds of species of plants, fish and wildlife and that includes some commercially valuable salmon runs.

Our Earthjustice litigators succeeded in securing federal protections to help protect some species in the Delta against very excessive and damaging redirecting of water from the Bay Delta ecosystem for the benefits of some of the world's wealthiest agribusinesses. That redirecting of water, which is coming in the form of pumping, harms imperiled species including salmon and delta smelt fish. So here in D.C., I work to make sure that those protections that our litigators won for the imperiled Bay Delta species aren't undermined by congressional actions. That can be a tough job given the strong political sway of those interests that would like to see those protections lifted.

Shutterstock

Sockeye salmon makes their way back up a river in the Pacific Northwest to spawn. Recent congressional attacks have focused on preventing salmon protections in the Columbia/Snake river system from being implemented.

Another example of a species we work to defend is the gray wolf. Wolves are a very critical part of the ecosystem to which they are native. For centuries, they were hunted, trapped and poisoned and that brought them to the very brink of extinction in the lower-48 states. Earthjustice for a long time has worked to protect wolves that were reintroduced to the Northern Rocky Mountains. Our work there continues.

How You Can Help
Protect the ESA from Congressional Attacks!
A bill (H.R. 3533 / S. 1731) that could rightly be called the "Extinction Act" has been introduced by anti-environment lawmakers. It would gut the ESA and put imperiled species at greater risk.

Take Action Today

The latest threat that has come front and center here in D.C. is a proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove remaining federal protections for wolves across almost the entire lower-48 states. If that proposal is finalized it would be incredibly premature delisting of gray wolves since wolves are really still missing across the majority of their former range in the lower-48 states. So we are working hard to combat that proposal by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and more than 70,000 Earthjustice activists have already weighed in with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to comment on that proposal and we're hoping that more folks will be able to weigh in before the comment period closes in mid-December of 2013.

Defending the Endangered Species Act

Kari: How do you defend the ESA?

Marjorie: Defending the ESA from some very powerful interests that would like to see it weakened really takes a team. I work with congressional allies, other organizations, and with Earthjustice activists to help defeat anti-ESA bills and amendments in congress and also to oppose agency proposals that would undermine the Act as well. As I mentioned earlier, we are enormously aided by the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans support the Endangered Species Act and purpose and we are also aided by being able to highlight the very strong economic and ecological benefits that species protections provide.

Kari: Why is Earthjustice uniquely qualified to protect the Endangered Species Act?

The ESA is one of the most powerful environmental laws that has ever been enacted. But having a law like the Endangered Species Act on the books doesn't do any good unless that law is actually enforced.

Earthjustice has gone to court time and time again on behalf of our clients to help ensure that the government is accountable and actually complying with the Act.

– Marjorie Mulhall
Legislative Counsel

Marjorie: The ESA is one of the most powerful environmental laws that has ever been enacted but having a law like the Endangered Species Act on the books doesn't do any good unless that law is actually enforced. Earthjustice has gone to court time and time again on behalf of our clients to help ensure that the government is accountable and actually complying with the Act. Our legal victories have ensured that this very important law is enforced so that it can do its job in protecting vulnerable species.

To highlight some of the many successes we've had just even in the past few years—Earthjustice and our clients have successfully catalyzed very long overdue protections for wolverines in the lower-48 states to help protect that species from trapping and the effects of climate change. We've succeeded in securing federal protections for false killer whales that have suffered from injury and death because of Hawaiʻi-based longline fisheries. We've helped maintain very much needed Endangered Species Act protections for Steller sea lions in portions of Alaska to help reduce competition between those sea lions and large commercial fisheries in those areas. A final example I'll give is the fact that we've succeeded in maintaining federal protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears, given that those bears face the loss of a very key food source, which is the whitebark pine, due to the impacts of climate change.

A Day in the Life of an Earthjustice Legislative Counsel

Kari: What does a typical day look like for you?

Marjorie: A typical day for me can include meeting with folks in congressional offices to help explain how various legislative proposals affect endangered species. Perhaps I'd be attending a congressional hearing related to the Endangered Species Act. Maybe meeting with other groups to work together to help defend the Act. Sometimes I'll help to prepare comments to federal wildlife agencies on their proposals to interpret and implement the Act. My days are full of a lot of variety and that's really one of the many things I love about getting to do this work.

The Importance of the Endangered Species Act

Kari: Why is it important to you?

I am amazed at the variety of life on this planet and I'm really deeply troubled by the idea that we humans can render other species extinct for the sake of short-term economic gain. That's happening worldwide with plant and animal species disappearing at a very alarming rate. I think we can and must do better than that.

I'm really grateful to get to go to work every day, protecting a law that in turn protects our fellow species.

– Marjorie Mulhall
Legislative Counsel

Marjorie: This work is important to me because I am amazed at the variety of life on this planet and I'm really deeply troubled by the idea that we humans can render other species extinct for the sake of short-term economic gain. That's happening worldwide with plant and animal species disappearing at a very alarming rate. I think we can and must do better than that. What's great about the Endangered Species Act is that it challenges us to do just that. I'm really grateful to get to go to work every day, protecting a law that in turn protects our fellow species.

Kari: Why should this work to protect the Endangered Species Act be important to everyone?

Marjorie: There are so many reasons to care about imperiled species and protecting biodiversity. I'll highlight just a few.

First, all species are part of a very delicate web of life. Aldo Leopold, who was one of the founders of the American conservation movement, wrote that the land is one organism, and that “[t]o keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” I think the 'take home' there is that we cannot know the full impacts of rendering a species extinct until it is far too late.

Second, wildlife-related industries and recreation contribute literally billions of dollars to the American economy each year. So protecting wildlife just makes good economic sense.

The last point I'll highlight is the fact that we really have a responsibility to be good stewards of our natural heritage and to pass along to future generations a world that is full of natural wonders and incredible creatures that we benefit from today.

The Endangered Species Act Turns Forty

Kari: We are coming up on the 40th anniversary of the ESA. How do you plan to celebrate?

Marjorie: This is a very big year for the Endangered Species Act. It turns 40 on December 28th, 2013 and all year we've done outreach to media, to decision-makers and to the public about the fact that we've had 40 years of success with this Act and to also highlight the species that this Act has brought back from the very brink of extinction, species like the Bald Eagle, the American alligator and the brown pelican.

Later this year, Earthjustice and our coalition partners will honor some current and former members of Congress that have been a big part in either conceiving of the Act 40 years ago or in helping defending the Act since. [See: Champions of the Endangered Species Act in Congress] This has been a particularly exciting year to be involved in species protection issues.

Marjorie Mulhall is a legislative counsel on the Policy & Legislative team where she focuses on preventing legislative rollbacks of Earthjustice's legal victories. To learn more about Earthjustice's Policy & Legislative work, visit earthjustice.org/about/offices/pal.

For more interviews with environmental experts, please be sure to check out other Down to Earth episodes at earthjustice.org/DownToEarth.

Interview highlights have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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