South Sound residents share a profound sense of pride in our region’s natural beauty, which adds to our quality of life and bonds us as a community.
Bald eagles nest and soar along Point Defiance Park’s beaches. Great whales – humpbacks and grays – make regular visits to Commencement Bay. Fishers (small members of the weasel family) roam Mount Rainier. Gray wolves and wolverines are returning to mountain meadows.
When we thrill to these natural wonders, we should reflect on the landmark law that makes such moments possible. Since 1973, the Endangered Species Act has provided protection and recovery for many of our country’s rarest wildlife species. The ESA is credited with saving the bald eagle, wolf and hundreds of other animals from extinction.
But today it is under threat. Dozens of proposed amendments would seriously undermine this crucial law.
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Like any law, the ESA can be improved – and has been – over many decades. Previous changes focused on ways to afford better protections for threatened and endangered animals. But the proposed changes ignore the challenges of wildlife conservation and the need to build consensus.
One proposed change would allow, for the first time, consideration of the economic consequences of protecting a species when determining if it should be listed as threatened or endangered. This would compromise one of the most fundamental tenets of the law: its requirement to consider only the best available science in making listing decisions.
Economic and other factors already are weighed when making subsequent decisions, like designating critical habitat, but have no place in determining whether a species is threatened with extinction. This proposed change could significantly alter the likelihood that species will receive protection.
The ESA defines a threatened species as one likely to become in danger of extinction within the “foreseeable future.” One of the proposed changes would create a framework for determining what that means on a case-by-case basis. While this sounds reasonable, it likely will make it more difficult to consider the effects of complex forces such as climate change and limit our efforts to save vulnerable species as our planet warms.
This law was enacted with bipartisan support and serves as a model for species-protection laws around the world. It has overwhelming support by Americans from all walks of life. A recent poll by The Center for Biological Diversity found that 67 percent of respondents wanted the law strengthened or left as is. Ninety percent of the public supports a strong ESA.
Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park are committed to saving animals from extinction.
In the new Pacific Seas Aquarium, we are engaging our community to protect endangered hammerhead sharks and sea turtles. At Northwest Trek, we are providing a home for two orphaned grizzly bears and are part of a coalition working to restore this species to the Cascades.
We’re working with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and other partners to reintroduce fishers near Mount Rainier. Both zoos have been instrumental in reintroducing the endangered Oregon spotted frog to the wild and have played a leading role in saving the red wolf from extinction.
The ESA is crucial to the work that we and other accredited zoos do to protect animals. It has made all the difference in saving some of our most treasured wildlife, and it must remain strong to help species still struggling to survive.
Future generations are depending on environmental decisions we make today. Please join us in urging the federal government to rescind the proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act.
Alan Varsik is director of zoological and environmental education for Metro Parks Tacoma.