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Endangered Species Act hits milestone

By Bryan Stevens

Photo by Pixabay • Birds like the whooping crane continue to exist on the planet thanks in large part to federal protection afforded them by the Endangered Species Act. The legislation was signed into law Dec. 28, 1973, by President Richard Nixon.

A milestone was observed on Dec. 28. The date marked the 48th anniversary of the signing of the Endangered Species Act by President Richard Nixon.

The Department of Interior issued the first list of endangered species in March 1967. It included 14 mammals, 36 birds, six reptiles, six amphibians and 22 fish. A few notable species listed in 1967 included the grizzly bear, American alligator, Florida manatee and bald eagle. With the exception of the manatee, most of these species have recovered. 

In 1972, President Nixon declared current species conservation efforts to be inadequate. He called on the 93rd U.S. Congress to pass comprehensive endangered species legislation. Congress responded with the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which was signed into law by Nixon on Dec. 28, 1973.

With a host of negatives now associated with his legacy, the only president in U.S. history to resign from office is at least linked to an enduring and worthwhile piece of legislation that has withstood repeated attacks over the past few decades. 

In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be any need to protect the natural world from humanity. It’s not a perfect world. Far from it. In recognition of the undeniable fact that many species face mounting pressures to their continued existence means the Endangered Species Act is the best hope for preserving the balance that the animated motion picture, “The Lion King,” referred to as the circle of life.

If we were better stewards of creation, we would still thrill to the darkening flocks of passenger pigeons and listen to the raucous calls of the Carolina parakeet. A depressingly long list of Hawaiian birds lost in only the last few centuries might be a lot shorter. Birds like Bachman’s warbler, ivory-billed woodpecker, eskimo curlew and Labrador duck might still remain to share the planet with us.

We’re not always good stewards, so I celebrate the fact that in 1973 President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law. 

Since that time, the law has helped in the struggle to save birds ranging from the tiny Kirtland’s warbler to the tall and stately whooping crane. The legislation has saved raptors like the peregrine falcon and even the bald eagle, which serves as the nation’s official bird. California condors once again soar free in the skies over California and Arizona. 

It’s not birds only that have benefited from the Endangered Species Act. Wildlife from grizzlies and wolves to mussels and salamanders have been saved from perishing. The majestic American bison may never roam the continent in the massive herds that once existed, but the buffalo still exists.

The challenges will probably only get steeper as the pace of climate changes continues to escalate. 

Success stories under the Endangered Species Act are known as “delistings,” and refer to plants and animals coming off the list after criteria show that their populations have recovered.

On the plant side of the list, the Tennessee purple coneflower is one of the plant delistings. The plant is only found in cedar glades in the central portion of the state of Tennessee. The purchase of habitat by the Nature Conservancy and the State of Tennessee needed to preserve the flower helped bring about a rebound to let the plant come off the Endangered Species List on Sept. 2, 2011.

Some of the efforts to save species are ongoing and tenuous. The whooping crane, which is the tallest bird in North America, is a case in point. Population totals wax and wane from year to year. One factor that has consistently hampered the effort to recover the population of this majestic bird has been the illegal and incomprehensible shooting of individual birds. The International Crane Foundation estimates that the nearly 20% of deaths among reintroduced cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population are due to shootings. Efforts to establish a non-migratory population in Louisiana’s White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area, which was a historical home for a population of non-migratory cranes. About 10% of the first 147 released cranes introduced to the Louisiana population were shot and killed.

It’s for this reason that the Endangered Species Act remains one of the most vital pieces of legislation in regard to the preservation of wildlife. Human beings are saviors thanks to this legislation, but all too often humans are also the problem.

There’s no mistaking a whooping crane for any other North American bird. The bird stands nearly five feet tall on long legs with a long neck adding to a stately, graceful appearance. The snowy white plumage is accented by a red crown and mustache stripe. In flight, black wing tips are visible. An adult crane may weight 15 pounds and boast a wingspan of seven feet. 

According to the website All About Birds, the whooping crane declined to around 20 birds in the 1940s but, through captive breeding, wetland management and an innovative program that teaches young cranes how to migrate, numbers have risen. Recent surveys have found between 600 and 800 individuals. 

Birders wanting to see whooping cranes in the wild often travel to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, the site where most of the world’s remaining migratory whooping cranes spend the winter months. This crane gets the “whooping” part of its common name from the loud, bugling call that the bird produces.

I’ve only once seen a Whooping Crane more than 20 years ago when a migrating individual made a brief stop at a field in Greene County. I’ll always remember gathering with a group of other birders and looking at the bird through binoculars and spotting scopes. The bird’s cooperation ended when it took flight and rose on wide, white wings and continued its migration. It was like hope rising into the clouds.

I remain hopeful. One of the reasons for my optimism is rooted in the success of the Endangered Species Act signed by a disgraced president. I’ve also always appreciated irony.