The Endangered Species Act

A special report on Earthjustice's work in defending at-risk species and the ecosystems they depend on.

Grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park.
Grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park (Neal Herbert / National Park Service)

Earthjustice Special Report
The Endangered Species Act

Defending At-Risk Species & The Ecosystems They Depend On

Update Aug. 12, 2019 The Trump administration finalized dramatic rollbacks to the rules that implement the Endangered Species Act, attempting to weaken the critical and popular environmental law that serves as the last safety net for animals and plants facing extinction. The rollbacks further imperil hundreds of species and violate the spirit and purpose of the law itself.

Photo Courtesey of Thomas D. Mangelsen

One of the most popular and effective environmental laws ever enacted, the Endangered Species Act is a commitment by the American people to work together to protect and restore species at risk of extinction, from the famous to the obscure. A powerful piece of environmental legislation, it also protects and helps restore the ecosystems that these at-risk species—and a host of other animals and plants—depend on. The ESA is a bulwark against the global extinction crisis and key to protecting our natural heritage from the impacts of climate change.

Miles Ritter / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Southern resident orca J16 makes rainbows while surfacing in Puget Sound.

Over the years, Earthjustice has pioneered the use of the Act in court, compelling agencies to do the species protection job that the Act commands.

With the help of the ESA we’ve gained protections for hundreds of species, including Puget Sound’s orcas and many of Hawaiʻi’s rare and beautiful native plants. We have defended Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, stopped rampant clear-cutting of the Northwest’s remaining old-growth forests, and fought to save the West Coast’s wild salmon runs and the fisheries they support. Although we have made much progress, many of these fights—and more—continue to this day.

The ESA’s effectiveness has provoked relentless attempts to weaken or gut the law, and powerful special interest groups routinely attempt to block or strip protections for a particular species. Earthjustice has tenaciously defended the Act in court and on Capitol Hill, demanding that endangered species management be based on the best available science and the clear mandates of the law.

In Conversation: Defending the Endangered Species Act, featuring Tim Preso, Northern Rockies Managing Attorney, and Marjorie Mulhall, Senior Legislative Counsel.

Click play button to listen:

The ESA is currently under severe attack by anti-environment members of Congress, who have made weakening it a top priority despite the fact that an overwhelming majority—90 percent—of American voters support the law. In the last five years, the rate of legislative attacks on endangered species has increased 600 percent compared to the previous 15 years, with more than 80 pieces of anti-endangered species legislation introduced in 2015 alone.

Earthjustice is playing a leading role in countering this barrage, working with a coalition of conservation groups that builds public support for the ESA and works with Congress and the administration to help ensure that this critically important law remains intact.

The ESA is one of the bedrock environmental laws that Earthjustice uses to reinforce environmental protection across the country, going to court on the public’s behalf to demand that the law be upheld and enforced when government agencies can’t or won’t.

This report shares some highlights of our past and current work wielding the power of the Act to protect both species and the ecosystems on which they depend.

Sustaining Wild Places & Wide-Roaming Species

The Northern Rockies are home to some of the last big wild places remaining in the lower 48 states—places like the Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems.

  • Photos courtesy of Gene Sentz
    The Crown of the Continent: Two Medicine Lake.

  • Photos courtesy of Gene Sentz
    The Crown of the Continent: The Belly River Ranger Station in Glacier National Park.

  • Photos courtesy of Gene Sentz
    The Crown of the Continent: The photographer, Gene Sentz, climbing Deer Mountain in Montana with the Bob Marshall Wilderness in the background.

  • Photos courtesy of Gene Sentz
    The Crown of the Continent: A local rancher’s horses standing peacefully in front of Old Man of the Hills mountain on a very cold and windy day.

  • Photos courtesy of Gene Sentz
    The Crown of the Continent: A frozen paw print, most likely of a lynx, a threatened species found throughout the Crown ecosystem.

  • Photos courtesy of Gene Sentz
    The Crown of the Continent: Three rams just west of Choteau, Montana. The photographer was snowshoeing and accidently spooked the rams.

  • Photos courtesy of Gene Sentz
    The Crown of the Continent: Sunset in the Rocky Mountain Front.

These lands are still relatively intact and support a rich range of biodiversity. They provide critical habitat for animals that need room to roam, particularly carnivores like grizzly bears, wolverines, wolves, and lynx. Many of these top predators have been extirpated elsewhere and are endangered due to hunting, trapping, and habitat loss.

Yet we now know they are key to the health of the ecosystems they inhabit, helping to keep the intricate food web in balance and benefiting a wide range of species. With the help of the ESA, Earthjustice works to preserve these magnificent creatures and the wild lands they both depend on and sustain.

Grizzly bears once roamed throughout the western United States, but now only a few small populations of these keystone predators remain in the lower 48. In 1975 they were listed as threatened under the ESA, and today they’re coping with longstanding threats such as poaching, as well as new threats to their food sources caused by a changing climate.

Neal Herbert / National Park Service
Grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. Only a few small populations of grizzly bears are left in the lower 48 states.

Since the 1990s Earthjustice has fought plans to remove ESA protection from grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. In 2011 we won a groundbreaking ruling that requires climate-change impacts to be considered when assessing risks to the bears. This decision sets a precedent for all threatened and endangered species impacted by the warming climate.

Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is once again proposing to delist Yellowstone grizzlies, based on disputed methods for counting grizzlies and grizzly mortality. We’re marshaling scientific evidence concerning threats to the bear population and stand ready to counsel the conservation community on critical strategy decisions.

We’re also working to conserve important grizzly bear habitat throughout the Northern Rockies. In 2015 we won the Montana federal district court’s approval of a settlement agreement between conservationists and state officials that ensures long-term protection for more than 22,000 acres of important habitat for grizzly bears and threatened bull trout on Stillwater State Forest lands near Whitefish, Montana. Currently we’re fighting two massive proposed mining projects—the Montanore and Rock Creek silver and copper mines—that would spell the end for imperiled grizzly bears and bull trout in Montana’s Cabinet Mountains.

William Sebastian / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Wolves in Yellowstone National Park.

Wolves play an essential role in the health of our great wild places, culling injured and diseased elk and deer and preventing herds from overgrazing riparian areas, which spurs the recovery of tree populations, improves stream ecology, and benefits birds, beavers, fish, and other wildlife.

Earthjustice litigation has been instrumental in protecting wolves for more than two decades, enabling gray wolf populations to rebound in the lower 48. Today we’re fighting to maintain adequate protections for gray wolves in Northern Rockies states such as Idaho, where federal protections were removed due to political pressure and where state wildlife managers have instituted hostile wolf management policies—including wolf control aimed at a premiere federal wilderness area.

Wolves Need A Good Lawyer, Now More Than Ever Before.

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See Map Of Our Wolf Work

In 2014, Earthjustice won a key legal victory that restored federal ESA protections for gray wolves in Wyoming, a state with a history of hostile and extreme anti-wolf policies. Currently we’re defending that victory against an appeal and fighting concerted congressional efforts to negate the court ruling through wolf delisting “riders” and amendments. We continue to play a leading role helping a broad coalition of conservation groups oppose all attempts to remove existing federal protections for wolves, whether via congressional action or delisting by the FWS.

In the Southwest, we’re working to compel an effective restoration and protection program for the Mexican gray wolf, one of the most endangered mammals in North America. And in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, we’re fighting to save old-growth forest habitat that is critically important to the rare Alexander Archipelago wolf.

AY Images / Shutterstock
After more than a century of trapping and habitat loss, wolverines in the lower 48 have been reduced to small, fragmented populations in Idaho, Montana, Washington, Wyoming and northeast Oregon.

Wolverines now have a fighting chance at survival, thanks to a court ruling this April overturning the federal government’s refusal to grant protections to this rare and elusive species under the ESA. Tenacious animals known to scale virtually vertical ice cliffs, wolverines are nevertheless fighting for their lives against climate change, habitat pressures, and recreational trapping—scientists think that fewer than 300 remain in the lower 48 states.

Prodded by a series of Earthjustice lawsuits, in 2013 the FWS proposed to protect wolverines under the ESA, which would put an end to Montana’s trapping season and compel new measures to help the species survive the impacts of climate change. In 2014, under pressure from state officials, the agency reversed course and overruled its own biologists. We challenged the reversal, and this April a federal judge ruled in our favor, criticizing the FWS for buckling under political pressure instead of basing its decision on the best available science.

Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Whales, otters, and sea turtles are more than just cute creatures that capture our imagination—they play critical roles in regulating ocean ecosystems.

In Conversation: Because Oceans Need Good Lawyers Too, featuring Steve Mashuda, Oceans Managing Attorney, and David Henkin, Staff Attorney, Mid-Pacific office.

Click play button to listen:

Most people agree that these species are worth protecting in their own right, but few realize that their presence and abundance is in fact key to the overall health of oceans already threatened by pollution, ocean acidification, climate change, and overexploitation. In protecting these magnificent creatures we also work to protect entire marine ecosystems and benefit many other species.

In March 2015, Earthjustice won a federal court ruling that prompted the Navy to put vast swaths of important habitat in the Pacific Ocean off Southern California and Hawaiʻi off-limits to weapons and sonar testing that can harm whales, dolphins, and many other marine mammals, including Hawaiian monk seals, false killer whales, blue whales, and other species protected under the ESA.

  • Robin W. Baird / Cascadia Research Collective
    Spotted dolphins swim on the west side of Hawai‘i Island, in an area that will finally now have protections from use of sonar and explosives.

  • Daniel L. Webster / Cascadia Research Collective
    Spinner dolphins swim on the west side of Hawai‘i Island, in an area that will finally now have protections from use of sonar and explosives.

  • Annie B. Douglas / Cascadia Research Collective
    Pilot whales swim on the west side of Hawai‘i Island, in an area that will finally now have protections from use of sonar and explosives.

  • Daniel L. Webster / Cascadia Research Collective
    Melon-headed whales swim on the west side of Hawai‘i Island, in an area that will finally now have protections from use of sonar and explosives.

  • Dan J. Mcsweeney / Cascadia Research Collective – Wild Whale Research Foundation
    False killer whales swim on the west side of Hawai‘i Island, in an area that will finally now have protections from use of sonar and explosives.

  • Daniel L. Webster / Cascadia Research Collective
    Cuvier’s beaked whale swims on the west side of Hawai‘i Island, in an area that will finally now have protections from use of sonar and explosives.

Ocean noise is one of the biggest threats to the health and well-being of marine mammals, which rely on sound to “see” their world. For years, scientists have documented that high-intensity mid-frequency sounds like sonar wreak havoc on the aquatic environment, causing serious impacts to marine mammals, such as strandings, habitat avoidance, and even death.

The Navy has ignored these impacts, refusing to set aside biologically important areas to minimize harm to these vulnerable marine populations. The settlement resulting from our litigation victory is the first time the Navy has agreed to create safe havens to protect these vital and vulnerable marine species.

Jean Edouard Rozey / Shutterstock
Sea otters, which play a vital role in keeping kelp forest ecosystems in balance, face a multitude of threats.

Sea otters play a vital role in keeping their native kelp forest ecosystem in balance. Otters have voracious appetites, and among the things they like to eat are urchins, which eat kelp. When otter numbers decline, urchin populations explode and devour the kelp, transforming lush, diverse underwater forests into barren wastelands suitable only for urchins.

Once thought to be extinct, California’s southern sea otters have been protected under the ESA since 1977, but their small population continues to be threatened by infectious diseases and parasites caused by polluted runoff, oil spills, and other environmental hazards.

Currently Earthjustice is representing conservation clients in two lawsuits involving a federal decision to allow imperiled southern sea otters to repopulate their native habitat off the Southern California coast. That decision prompted the lawsuits from the California Sea Urchin Commission and other commercial fishing groups that fear competition for sea urchins from the otters. We intervened in both cases to defend the government’s decision and won. We are now defending both rulings on appeal, in order to ensure that otters are allowed to recover and fulfill their important ecological role throughout their historic range.

Becky Skiba / U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
A loggerhead hatchling crawls toward the ocean on Georgia’s Blackbeard Island. Endangered loggerhead turtles are too often killed as “bycatch” in HawaiÊ»i’s swordfish longline fishery.

Whether we find them over seagrass beds or coral reefs, feeding in the open ocean, or nesting on the beach, endangered sea turtles help keep their ecosystem healthy.

For example, unhatched eggs help fertilize the beach and encourage vegetation growth that helps stabilize the dunes and protect them from erosion.

Sea turtles feed on jellyfish (which in turn feed on fish eggs and larvae) that are gradually replacing many overfished finfish populations. Because ocean warming and certain types of pollution can accelerate jellyfish reproduction, keeping jellies under control is increasingly important, and enforcing protections for sea turtles becomes more critical.

We’re challenging a federal government decision to allow the Hawaiʻi-based swordfish longline fishery to nearly double the number of endangered loggerhead and leatherback turtles incidentally injured or killed by the fishery each year. The case is currently on appeal in the 9th Circuit Court.

Coral & Parrotfish: A Love Story

In this short film, Andrea Treece, Staff Attorney, Oceans Program, explains how parrotfish help Caribbean coral reefs survive.

Coral reefs support a quarter of all marine life, providing shelter and hunting grounds for an incredible array of species, but are now threatened worldwide due to pollution, overfishing, and climate change impacts. In the Caribbean, elkhorn and staghorn corals were once the dominant reef-building corals, but today are perilously close to extinction.

To protect coral reefs in the Caribbean and the abundant diversity they support, Earthjustice challenged federal fishery management measures that allow fishermen to continue to deplete populations of parrotfish off the shores of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Parrotfish protect corals by grazing on algae that otherwise would smother coral reefs. As a result of a 2013 court ruling in our favor, the government issued an improved but still inadequate plan for monitoring the fishery’s impact on corals. We continue our efforts to reform this fishery and are focused on ensuring that fisheries managers apply the best and latest science in a new plan slated to be released in the fall of 2016.

Protecting Western Rivers

Major watersheds of the West Coast once hosted some of the world’s great salmon runs, with millions of fish returning to spawn each year.

In Conversation: Let The River Flow, featuring Todd True, Managing Attorney, Northwest office.

Click play button to listen:

Salmon are a crucial species in the functioning of these amazingly productive watersheds and their coastal estuaries. But dams, water diversions for irrigation and industry, pollution, reckless logging—and now drought and climate change—have all taken their toll.

Today, salmon serve an additional role: their diminished numbers are one of the clear indicators of the declining health of these once-vibrant ecosystems.

  • Brad Zweerink for Earthjustice
    “The salmon for us are the indicators of how healthy our world is,” says Caleen Sisk, leader of the Winnemem Wintu tribe. The tribe has inhabited the McCloud River watershed area near present-day Redding, California, for 6,000 years.

  • Brad Zweerink for Earthjustice
    A fly fisherman in the American River casts for salmon near the Nimbus Dam in California on February 5, 2014.

  • Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
    Jose Chi holds up an impressively large king salmon that was caught in the Pacific Ocean near Ft. Bragg, California.

  • Shutterstock
    Sockeye salmon swim up a Pacific Northwest river to spawn the next generation.

For years Earthjustice has partnered with conservationists, fishing interests, and Native Americans in successful litigation, first to obtain and then to enforce federal ESA protections for salmon and steelhead species in Puget Sound; the Columbia and Snake, Klamath, and Sacramento/San Joaquin watersheds; and Oregon coastal rivers.

We have helped secure threatened and endangered species listings for more than 20 major groups of Northwest salmon and steelhead, along with designation of their “critical habitat,” providing strong legal mandates to protect the waters in which salmon live.

Now the ESA—in conjunction with western water laws—is key to our efforts to remove barriers such as dams, ensure adequate water flows to allow the fish to migrate upstream to spawn, and strengthen safeguards against pesticides that harm salmon.

What You Need To Know About Columbia/Snake River Dams & Salmon

Illustration by Loetus Creative
Find out

Recent victories include upholding science-based requirements for water flows through the San Francisco Bay-Delta at levels that protect salmon runs; securing no-spray buffer zones around waterways to protect imperiled salmon and steelhead from toxic pesticides; forcing the federal government to release water over Snake and Columbia dam spillways to safely pass migrating baby salmon; successfully defending reservoir releases to increase river flows and benefit salmon in California’s Trinity River</a>; and obtaining the removal of two harmful dams on a tributary of Oregon’s Rogue River.

We continue to work to remove four dams in the Snake River watershed and to battle demands for water diversions in the Klamath and Sacramento/San Joaquin watersheds.

The damming and diverting of western rivers is also a primary cause of the decline of the Oregon spotted frog, which, like the drop in salmon numbers, is an indicator that the health of our rivers is in trouble. Once common from British Columbia to Northern California, the frog has suffered a major population decline, requiring ESA protections in 2014.

Teal Waterstrat / U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
An Oregon spotted frog, in the Conboy National Wildlife Refuge. The decline of the Oregon spotted frog is an indicator that the health of western rivers is in trouble.

Central Oregon’s Deschutes River, a major tributary of the Columbia River and one of the finest streams for trout and salmon runs in North America, is one of the few places where the frog still lives.

But the river and its tributaries have been heavily altered for water storage and irrigation, and as a result the once stable natural flows of the Upper Deschutes have been replaced by dramatic and unnatural flow swings that damage water quality, kill fish, and harm other wildlife, including the last few spotted frogs.

Earthjustice is going to court to make sure the Bureau of Reclamation and irrigation districts leave enough water flowing through the Deschutes every year for the frog to survive. The lawsuit alleges that managing the Upper Deschutes like an irrigation ditch rather than a natural resource has caused significant damage to the river’s health, including harm to the Oregon spotted frog. Our goal is to compel changes to water storage and use in the Deschutes Basin to better mimic natural fluctuations in flow.

The Endangered Species Act has helped us pull species back from the brink of extinction and protect and restore our special wild places. But we still have a long way to go. It’s time to renew our commitment to this landmark conservation law and to preserving the rich biodiversity that remains in the United States. Now more than ever we need a strong, fully funded, vigorously enforced ESA, to help our ecosystems withstand the worst impacts of climate change. Thank you for partnering with us in this important work.

By Eileen Ecklund. Spring 2016 edition.