How the West Was Lost

Photo:  Susanne Miller, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

By Kate Wall

When one thinks of the western United States it’s hard not to conjure up images of wildlife and wilderness.  But a coalition of “western” lawmakers wants to change that.  Last week the Congressional Western Caucus formally announced a raft of legislation aimed squarely at the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA has been extraordinarily effective since it became law in 1973 in helping to recover listed species like the bald eagle, green sea turtle, humpback whale, peregrine falcon, and Southern sea otter, among many others. Part of the Act’s genius – and a reason for its success – is the recognition that conservation issues transcend local political boundaries and that a holistic national framework is needed to fully protect species and habitats.

Unfortunately, the Western Caucus’ measures – 17 bills in total – seek to significantly reduce the federal role in protecting species that are struggling to survive in our changing world. In so doing, the bills ignore the reality that many species are neither stationary nor confined by political boundaries, and that the cumulative effects of different local actions may put them more at risk. That is why a federal agency is better placed to see the larger picture of threats that face a species than is a local government that is focused only within its local borders.

Don’t be fooled by its name. Western Caucus members hail from both coasts and across the country. It is a relatively small but vocal group, with a history of supporting anti-conservation legislation. Its latest legislative push is touted as an effort to “modernize” the ESA. But ironically, the bills are really a throwback to old fashioned and outdated concepts – they would propel us back to a time before we understood the importance of wildlife and wild places to our health, wellbeing, and survival. The bills are nineteenth-century thinking for the twenty-first century.

Like many such measures, the current crop of Western Caucus bills have innocuous, even positive names like the EMPOWERS Act and the Critical Habitat Improvement Act, but their effects would be anathema to national and international conservation efforts. The bills would undermine the ESA in a variety of ways that include: giving county executives a functional veto over listing new species as threatened or endangered; allowing economic considerations to override science; and restricting critical habitat to include only areas occupied by a species at the time of listing, regardless of the species’ historical range.

Today, we recognize that healthy ecosystems, of which wild animals are an integral part, are necessary to sustain life on the planet – including human life. We depend on those ecosystems for clean air, clean water, and food. Healthy, balanced ecosystems also provide protection from and resilience in the wake of natural disasters, as well as the building blocks of many important medicines. As we deal with a changing climate, and increasing human needs for food and land, we must recognize that another essential human need is to maintain the web of life that sustains us all. That means we must do more to protect species and their habitats, not less. Indeed, if we truly want to “modernize” the ESA, we should fully fund it, not seek to curtail its protections.

Most of us have heard what happened when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, after being nearly extirpated by humans: the ecosystem regenerated; aspen regrew; beavers and songbirds returned; the riparian system flourished. Conversely, that means the loss of wolves caused profound harm to the broader ecosystem. It is a lesson we would do well to remember.
We are in the midst of the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event, and this one is precipitated by human actions. Last May, the Intergovernmental Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a chilling report warning that as many as one million species of animals are at risk of extinction in the near term as a result of human actions that lead to habitat destruction, overconsumption, climate change, pollution, and invasive species. The whole world is watching as climate-change fuels fires across Australia that have already killed an estimated ONE BILLION animals. And just days ago a report warned that our oceans are warming at an unprecedented rate equivalent to five atomic bombs per second. Removing protections for species and habitat will only increase our collective risk and reduce our global resilience.

If the Western Caucus is truly serious about species protection, it should endorse HR 4348, the Protect America’s Wildlife and Fish In Need of Conservation (PAW and FIN Conservation) ACT, which would repeal recent Administrative actions that significantly undermine the ESA. If the Caucus wants to modernize the ESA, it should call for fully funding the Act’s implementation, ensure that climate change is adequately considered in listing decisions, and close any loopholes that allow projects to circumvent the ESA. It should not endorse outmoded notions that place short-term interests above long-term impacts. We are in a fight for our lives and the very existence of some wildlife.  At this key moment in time, we must ask ourselves not what it will cost our country to conserve biodiversity, but what it may cost our country if we lose it.

Kate Wall is a Senior Legislative Manager at the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

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