5 Reasons Congress Shouldn’t Mess with the Endangered Species Act

Gutting this landmark conservation law, which has saved 99 percent of the species it protects, is a terrible idea.

Gutting this landmark conservation law, which has saved 99 percent of the species it protects, is a terrible idea.
Gutting this landmark conservation law, which has saved 99 percent of the species it protects, is a terrible idea. (Holly Kuchera/Shutterstock)

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Recently, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing to discuss “modernizing” the Endangered Species Act. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), the committee chair, has long made it a priority to weaken this landmark conservation law, so savvy observers regard this rush for so-called “reform” as a thinly veiled attempt to gut the act.

Instead of making an effort to better protect our nation’s wildlife, the Senate appears to be taking us in the opposite direction. This is an early attempt to wriggle out of the government’s legal responsibility to prevent extinction.

Here are five excellent reasons Congress should not tamper with the Endangered Species Act:

1. Because “We the People” say so.

Wild animals are extremely popular. Why else would Planet Earth II*, the BBC documentary that chronicles the saga of survival with epic wildlife footage, be one of the world’s most-watched television shows? Humans tend to be inspired, bewildered and charmed by wild beasts, so it’s hardly surprising that the vast majority of American voters believe the government should protect vulnerable critters.

According to a national poll conducted in 2015, 90 percent of American voters support the Endangered Species Act—impressive results in an era marked by political polarization. The survey provides strong evidence that regardless of political persuasion, gender, ethnicity or location, most people support this decades-old conservation law. Polling results also show that 71 percent of respondents believe wildlife bwhich species should be protected under the act. Moreover, 66 percent of respondents believe it’s possible to protect endangered species while also creating jobs.

(*Don’t miss the riveting Planet Earth II sequence from the Galapagos Islands in which a baby iguana skitters past a nest of hungry racer snakes. The clip went viral online, prompting one reporter to dub the young reptile “the world’s next great action hero.”)

2. Because it’s foolish to weaken ecosystems that are already out of whack.

Long after a plant or animal has vanished from a landscape, its loss reverberates—sometimes in unexpected ways. Take the rise of Lyme disease, a chronic illness that causes joint pain, fatigue and memory loss. It’s a growing epidemic in the Northeast and upper Midwest, caused by a pervasive bacteria transmitted to humans through tick bites. Because ticks get this disease from the rodents they feed on, many wildlife biologists have linked the rise of Lyme disease to the loss of large predators that would normally eat rodents. Lyme-infected rodents proliferate in the same disturbed environments where endangered gray wolves and cougars once roamed, but these native carnivores are now largely absent from the food chain.

For a global take on the link between disease and the loss of biodiversity, listen to this NPR story highlighting the connection between rainforest destruction and killer viruses, such as Ebola and Zika.

3. Because the Endangered Species Act is effective — and it’s needed now more than ever.

Many biologists suggest that Earth is currently in the throes of a sixth mass extinction—a wave of biodiversity loss largely fueled by human activity. By some estimates, close to 17,000 species are endangered. Despite this grim outlook, the Endangered Species Act has proven an effective tool to stem the tide.

More than four decades after this legal safety net was created, evidence of its impact is clear: 99 percent of listed species have not perished. Take the bald eagle as an example. In 1963, due to the hazardous pesticide DDT, the eagles had dwindled to a low of 417 known nesting pairs. Today our national symbol is much healthier, with an estimated 10,000 nesting pairs—all thanks to the recovery efforts set in motion by the act.

4. Because endangered species can be big business in regions supported by tourism.

Endangered species are a draw for vacationers. Consider the impact of wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Eleven years after wolves were reintroduced to the landscape, the Yellowstone Park Foundation commissioned a study to analyze the economic impact of their presence. Led by an economist at the University of Montana, the study revealed that Yellowstone visitors who were drawn by wolves contributed roughly $35.5 million a year to the regional economy.

Another prime example is the estimated $68.5 million in indirect spending generated by whale watching in California. The gray whale, which was listed as federally endangered, is particularly fascinating to lovers of marine life. So, when the government succeeds in saving a species, local economies can get a big boost from wildlife tourism.

5. Because extinct plants aren’t going to help us find a cure for cancer.

The Endangered Species Act doesn’t just protect animals; it also prevents the loss of rare plants, many of which have medicinal properties. A majority of widely-used prescription drugs are derived from natural sources. Yet, only a small percentage of the known plant species has ever been screened for medicinal uses, and still more species remain unknown to science.

According to a report published by experts at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, at least 18,000 plants have medicinal uses, but one in five of the world’s plant species is at risk of extinction. And according to research from the Center for Biological Diversity, medicinal plants are increasingly threatened by the forces of habitat destruction. Weakening federal protections under the Endangered Species Act will only dim the prospects for our struggling flora and the quest to identify new cures for what ails us.

Take Action! Tell your representatives in Congress to stand up for wild plants and wildlife by protecting the Endangered Species Act


The 45th U.S. president, Donald J. Trump, is bent on gutting environmental protections, and—with a polluter-friendly Congress at his side—he’ll likely do everything he can to dismantle our fundamental right to a healthy environment. The Capitol Watch blog series will shine a light on these political attacks from Congress and the Trump administration, as well as the work of Earthjustice and our allies to hold them accountable.

Based in Portland, OR, Rebecca is Earthjustice's Public Affairs and Communications Officer for lands, wildlife, and oceans.

Established in 1989, Earthjustice's Policy & Legislation team works with champions in Congress to craft legislation that supports and extends our legal gains.