Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

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Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.”
—President Richard Nixon, on signing the Endangered Species Act

This year celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, although “celebration” may be an odd word at the moment when this extraordinary Act has, itself, become endangered. After many years of proving its effectiveness in recovering wildlife on the brink of extinction, the Act is at a crossroads. Conditions on the ground are difficult. One cost of increasing energy demands is lost habitat. Add to that climate change that has already made it difficult for some animals to live where they have always lived. So where do they all go? What happens to wildlife when home becomes unlivable?

The goal of the ESA, to conserve species that are at risk of becoming extinct, also means protecting the ecosystems on which they depend. For a species to be protected, it must be listed as either “threatened”, or “endangered.” Endangered is the closest to extinction, the category most in need of action. Normally, when a species is listed, areas with the features necessary for the species’ conservation, are also listed as “critical habitat.” So, the ESA protects both animals and plants and the habitat they need.

It was a prudent Congress that passed the Endangered Species Act. But all Congresses are not alike. Much of our current Congress, unsympathetic to the needs of the earth, seems blind to the connection between the health of the earth, and the health of humans living on the earth. This Congress is perfectly willing to put politics above science. (This Congress seems perfectly willing to put politics above everything.) On Feb. 4, a group of House Republicans called for changes to the ESA that would give States more authority over species at risk, and limit lawsuits by wildlife advocates-- a process that has played a vital part in gaining protection. This Congress has the dubious distinction of being the first Congress ever to intervene in the listing process. When it acted to delist the gray wolf in the Northern Rockies, it essentially acted outside the law. Removing species from (or adding to) the Endangered Species List isn’t Congress’s job. But the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, whose job it is, seems willing to comply with no argument.

Clearly, something is out of joint.

So, when Defenders of Wildlife’s new outreach representative organized a gathering of active members in the Albuquerque area to talk about plans for action in the coming months, I was glad to be among the people present. What the representative wanted was to “build a movement,” a coalition to influence Congress. With plans to arrange similar meetings in other parts of the state, and with the vibrant energy of the entrepreneur she is, it seems to me we’re at the beginning of a pretty active time. She sees her/our function as educators, starting at the nearest point – city council members, who speak to mayors who speak to legislators, etc. “We want our legislators to hear the calm, biological side of issues, not the emotional,” she says, alluding to the fact that many of us can get emotional when talking about animals we love. Other people, fearful of those same animals, also get emotional. Love and fear are real things, but they can both interfere with getting things done. “We have to be careful, because we are the voice of these critters,” she adds.

The Endangered Species Act puts our voice – the critters’ voice-- to good work. The protection provided by the Act is effective. A number of species have been rescued from the brink of extinction. Among them -- bald eagles, peregrine falcons, gray wolves, grizzly bears, Florida manatees, American alligators, black-footed ferrets. I had my own small part in this when I spent a summer in Montana’s Gallatin Range as a peregrine falcon hack-site attendant. My co-attendant and I alternated mornings to climb the cliff above our camp to bring quail (dead) to our four baby falcons. (We dropped the quail into the box through a tube that prevented them from seeing us so they would not grow up equating humans with food. I can’t imagine where they thought the food was coming from.) Through a peephole in the side of the box, we could watch the falcons’ activity, much of which involved flapping their wings or checking out the sky beyond them through the wire grill on the front of the box. When they were old enough to emerge from the box and begin learning to fly, and, ultimately, learning to hunt, we continued our morning climbs to leave quail on top of the hackbox. (The theory being that it is easier to learn to hunt if you are not hungry.) We spent much of the rest of each day at our spotting scopes, documenting every moment in their lives visible to us.

When, 13 years later, peregrines were officially removed from the Endangered Species List, it was not only a triumph for the falcon, but for the government agencies, state and provincial wildlife departments, private organizations, falconers, biologists, and ordinary people who had worked for 30 years to recover this magnificent bird. At the celebration held at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Bill Burnham, then president and founding board member of the Peregrine Fund, walked onstage and asked everyone involved in peregrine recovery to stand and shout “Victory!” At least half of us in the huge theater stood. It was a monumental shout that came out of the gut of a thousand people at once.

That pride, and that victory, remain palpable for me. I can imagine it when I think of wolves. I can imagine it when I think of every victory that should be possible for the earth. I wish every person who has never been present to that moment of victory could experience it. I wish the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act could be a real return to its intentions, to the intentions of that remarkable Congress committing to the preservation of all species. The choice to protect our natural heritage, to preserve the wild life and wild lands that are the strength of this country, the source of our health, our well-being, our civilization, should be a choice each of us makes daily, and that we somehow find a way to translate to our elected representatives.

Is it impossible? Maybe.

Maybe not.

Copyright © 2014 Ruth Rudner