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ESA Advocate: Trent Orr

On the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, Earthjustice staff members share experiences from their work involving the landmark environmental law.

My name is … Trent Orr.

I've been at Earthjustice since … 2000.

I first knew I wanted to be an environmental lawyer when … I took on an offshore oil drilling case for an environmental organization while in a fellowship at a public interest law firm right out of law school. I enjoyed the work, and I felt deeply connected to the cause.

Species I have worked to protect include … southern sea otter, gray whale, snowy plover, Chinook salmon, and delta smelt.

Protecting these species is significant in the bigger picture because … the decline of any species to a population level at which it needs protection under the ESA is a strong indication that something is out of balance in the environment in which it lives. Identifying and correcting such environmental problems helps not only the imperiled species in question, but all other species that rely on that environment, including us.

My most interesting ESA case is … the ongoing litigation over the delta smelt because it is a classic example of the way in which protecting a species can protect an entire ecosystem. The smelt, a nondescript 2-to-3-inch fish that lives only in the delta of California's Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, was once among the most abundant species in the Delta. In recent decades, its population has collapsed because of overpumping of water for industrial-scale agriculture in semi-desert areas, among other factors. Many other Delta species have declined with it. Our efforts to improve flows through the Delta for the smelt have beneficial effects on the entire Delta ecosystem and the complex web of life it supports.

The most enjoyable part of working on ESA cases is … quite simply, knowing that I'm doing something that could make a significant contribution to the survival and recovery of a species that is otherwise headed toward extinction.

The major players fighting against ESA protections are … those who profit from the unbridled exploitation of natural resources, such as the timber, mining, oil and gas, livestock, and off-road motorized vehicle industries.

One thing most people don't know about the ESA but should is … that it is one of the strongest and most effective environmental laws on the books. To know that is to know that we must be ever vigilant against the constant attempts to weaken it by those who want to profit from less stringent protection of our heritage of biodiversity.

Growing up, my favorite animals were … raccoons and octopi.

Now, my favorite wild species are … birds (I'm an avid birder), but I really don't play favorites anymore, since any native species is fascinating if you take the time to observe and learn about it and how it fits into its ecosystem.

The strangest animal factoid I've learned … is that many fish species change gender from male to female as they age? Or that certain frogs become completely frozen in the winter and yet thaw and resume life in the spring? Or that nesting albatrosses, to feed their chicks, fly several thousand miles to gather food for each feeding? The world of animals (and plants) is a cornucopia of the strange and marvelous.

Humans should care about disappearing species because of many reasons, including: the ripple effect that the loss of species has on the ecosystems of which they are a part, leading to the loss of other species and the degradation of the ecosystem as a whole; the loss of genetic material that could hold undiscovered benefits, such as new medicines; and the simple fact that our species, as the dominant species on the planet, has the fate of many other species in its hands and should safeguard those species, both for their own sakes and for the preservation of a healthy, diverse home for humanity.

To insulate animals from the effects of climate change, we must … preserve ample intact acreage of diverse wild habitats, as well as corridors among these areas, so that species have the ability to move to suitable habitat as climate change alters the locations where various plants and animals can thrive.

Earthjustice supporters can help protect imperiled species by … responding to action alerts on wildlife issues, supporting the preservation of natural habitats in the areas where they live, and talking to their friends about the importance of preserving biological diversity.

When I'm not working on behalf of endangered species, you'll probably find me … out looking for birds and other wildlife, both endangered and otherwise.

Trent Orr is a staff attorney in the California regional office. This Q&A was conducted in October 2013.