Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Endangered Endangered Species Act

Golden-winged Warbler

Last week, KUMD played a repeat of a program I’d done in 2011 about the Golden-winged Warbler and how rapidly this species has declined. For 40 years the population declined an average of 2.8% per year according to Breeding Bird Survey data, a rate that was accelerating then and appears to be just as bad today, 9 years later. Breeding Golden-wings have completely disappeared from Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, and are now restricted to a fraction of their former range in Wisconsin and Michigan. Minnesota has more remaining than any other state, but even here they are now restricted to the central part of the state west of Duluth and Minneapolis. From1994–2003, in the US Fish and Wildlife Service Region 3, which contains Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, they declined 9 percent annually.

This kind of dramatic decline is exactly the kind of situation the Endangered Species Act was supposed to help reverse before it reaches a critical point of no return. It worked great for Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Kirtland’s Warblers, and many other species that were placed on the Endangered Species list from the start, but for decades it’s been virtually impossible for new species to make it onto the endangered species list so they can get this level of federal help. The Golden-winged Warbler is considered a “species of management concern” in the United States, but this doesn’t give it anywhere near the level of protection that being listed as Endangered or Threatened would do. 

In 1972, Richard Nixon asked Congress to craft a law strengthening protections on endangered species. Congress responded with the Endangered Species Act of 1973, passed by the House with a 390-12 vote, and unanimously by the Senate. The Act begins with the finding that various species of fish, wildlife, and plants in the United States have been rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation; other species of fish, wildlife, and plants have been so depleted in numbers that they are in danger of or threatened with extinction; these species of fish, wildlife, and plants are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people, and must be preserved despite economic concerns.

With overwhelming support, a lot of species were almost immediately listed for protection under the Act. But Koch Brothers and various chemical companies saw the Endangered Species Act, along with the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, as a massive bull in a bullring. They took on the role of picadors, poking here and slashing there to weaken the Act, making it difficult both to list species, getting them protection under the law, and also to enforce the Act by adding all kinds of loopholes. 

The Reagan and both Bush administrations took an active role supporting the picadors. In March 2008, The Washington Post reported that documents showed that the Bush Administration, beginning in 2001, had erected "pervasive bureaucratic obstacles" that limited the number of species protected under the act. From 2000 to 2003, until a U.S. District Court overturned the decision, Fish and Wildlife Service officials said that if that agency identified a species as a candidate for the list, citizens could not file petitions for that species. Interior Department personnel were told they could use "info from files that refutes petitions but not anything that supports" petitions filed to protect species. Officials changed the way species were evaluated under the act by considering where the species currently lived, rather than where they used to exist. And senior officials repeatedly dismissed the views of scientific advisers who said that species should be protected.

We of course have had three Democratic administrations since the Endangered Species Act was passed. Protecting the environment, including endangered species, has been part of that party’s platform for many decades, but Carter was the only president with real experience and knowledge about the natural world, and those powerful corporate and political forces managed to limit his effectiveness. Clinton and Obama may have meant well, but they don’t have any kind of background at all in natural history or ecology—I doubt if either would recognize a Golden-winged Warbler if it wore a nametag and landed on their head. I saw firsthand that although conservation organizations and the Obama administration meant well in the aftermath of the BP oil spill, they were way too easily led or pressured to do exactly what BP wanted, including going along with a strict policy prohibiting anyone from publishing any scientific studies about the effects of the spill for a minimum of five years. By 2017, of course, people’s attention had moved on to newer pressing issues. 

Golden-winged Warbler hybrid with Blue-winged Warbler

Last year I saw a handful of Golden-winged Warblers. In Maine, I saw and photographed an incredibly lovely backcross individual—one of his parents must have been a hybrid between Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers, and the other a Golden-wing. I was ambivalent about it—thrilled with how gorgeous the little bird was and with my photos, but profoundly sad that Blue-winged Warblers are now reaching even the northern reaches of its range.

 Blue-winged Warbler

I woke up on May 18, 2015, to a Blue-winged Warbler singing out my bedroom window. As thrilled as I was to bulk up my yard list, having one here in St. Louis County seemed genuinely ominous. That gorgeous individual couldn’t help that climate change and losses of the habitat that Golden-wings need were helping Blue-wings at the expense of Golden-wings, so I could hardly blame the bird. But I sure felt that ambivalence that is becoming a bigger and bigger element in my birding. I wish we could go back to a simpler time when the national mood was powerfully focused on protecting all wildlife species, a time when the powers that hated the Endangered Species Act were themselves seen for the bull they spew rather than cheered on for slashing and picking at the Act before the final matador comes in for the kill.

Golden-winged Warbler

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