The passenger pigeon was gone by 1914, the billions that once swept like a storm cloud over eastern forests reduced by hunting and habitat destruction to a lone individual, named Martha, who expired in the Cincinnati Zoo.
With Martha’s demise, the passenger pigeon joined some 500 species and subspecies driven to extinction since Europeans first reached North American shores.
Slowly, however, our society began to recognize the inherent worth of the creatures with which we share this planet. Congress finally embraced that concept by enacting the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Recognizing that extinction is irreversible, the United States did what no country had done before, establishing what amounts to a bill of rights for animals and plants.
Enacted in the midst of a worldwide extinction crisis that threatened even our national symbol, the bald eagle, the act reflected the resolve of a society mature enough to guarantee a future not just for itself but for the rest of creation, even if difficult choices might be required.
Forty years later, America continues to stand behind that guarantee. The experience of four decades has demonstrated the importance of the act’s legal safety net.
Because of the act, today’s children are able to experience not only bald eagles but also orcas, alligators, condors, grizzly bears and myriad other creatures as living, breathing parts of our natural heritage—not as dusty museum specimens. Because of the act, the howling of wolves is again tingling spines in places as diverse as Wyoming, Wisconsin and North Carolina. And, because of the act, people are learning to live in relative harmony with species ranging from the wild salmon of the Pacific Northwest to the manatees of south Florida.
Stemming the tide of extinctions is the most important indicator of the Endangered Species Act’s effectiveness, but another is the unrelenting criticism the act has faced from anti-environmental interests. They target the act because it works.
Like all laws, however, the Endangered Species Act is just lofty words on paper unless it is enforced. Earthjustice has been at the forefront of efforts to make sure that this critical statute realizes its visionary promise. We have acted in the interest of countless plants and animals—but that is not all.
Sustaining endangered wildlife has meant controlling pesticides, cleaning up lakes and rivers, and preserving wild places that provide a long-term, low-cost source of clean air and water and offer a quiet refuge in our increasingly noisy, crowded world. Wild creatures need these things, but we do, too. In the end, by preserving endangered species, we help to preserve ourselves.
Written by Trip Van Noppen. First published in the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine, Winter 2013 issue.