Endangered species need protecting
Fifty years ago, America's wildlife was in crisis. Habitat loss and human pollution were driving hundreds of species to the brink of extinction, with no laws in place to protect them. A bi-partisan Congress and President Nixon responded by passing and signing into law the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Now, just as we celebrate nearly 50 years of this bedrock law, a new generation of politicians is trying to undermine ESA protections and reverse our progress. Here's a look at some of the endangered wildlife that have recovered thanks to the ESA.
Hunters nearly drove ocelots to extinction. At the height of the ocelot fur trade in the 1960s, up to 200,000 skins were sold each year, going for around $40,000 each. Thankfully, these gorgeous, solitary cats are now protected in most of their range—and their South American population is rebounding.
But in the U.S., the American subspecies has dwindled to between 50 and 80 cats. 95% of their U.S. habitat, which once extended across Texas into Arkansas and Louisiana, has been converted to agriculture and suburban sprawl. They are now confined to two small populations in South Texas.
Listed as endangered in 1982, car collisions are their main threat today. Long term, ocelot recovery in the U.S. depends on protecting them from cars, restoring habitat, and creating migratory corridors along the U.S.-Mexico border to support cross-population breeding.
A generation ago, our national symbol, the American bald eagle, was on the verge of extinction. By 1963, after decades of hunting, habitat loss, and DDT poisoning, their population had fallen from 100,000 nesting pairs two centuries earlier to just 487 pairs left in the lower 48.
But Rachel Carson's seminal work, Silent Spring, published a year earlier in 1962, alerted the country to the dangers of DDT, which bioaccumulates up the food chain and poisons bald eagles, ospreys, and other birds of prey. In 1967, a handful of scientists and a lawyer founded Environmental Defense Fund to sue local jurisdictions to stop the spraying of this dangerous pesticide. These efforts led to a national DDT ban in 1972.
When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed bald eagles as endangered throughout the lower 48, except in Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin where it was listed as threatened. With bald eagles now protected and with the DDT ban in effect, their population began a steady recovery, and by 2007, there were nearly 10,000 nesting pairs. In late June that year, just before Independence Day, our national symbol was declared recovered and removed from the Endangered Species List—one of the shining moments in conservation history.
Is there a cuddlier-looking animal on the planet than the sea otter? Tragically, the same snuggly fur that warms our hearts nearly drove them to extinction. Once numbering in the hundreds of thousands, they were extensively hunted for their coats, which is the densest of any mammal. By the early 20th century, there were only 1,000—2,000 sea otters left in the world.
Ironically, their sharp decline became their salvation. As sea otter numbers plummeted, it became difficult to commercially hunt them for their pelts. In 1911, Russia, Japan, Great Britain (for Canada) and the U.S. signed the Treaty for the Preservation and Protection of Fur Seals, which imposed a moratorium on hunting sea otters. Thanks to this and other protections, sea otters have rebounded in about two-thirds of their historic range, one of the great marine conservation success stories.
The California sea otter subspecies has been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1977. There are an estimated 2,900 California sea otters left, with 80% of them found in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Sadly, the California sea otter population has not fared as well as other sea otter subspecies, making continued conservation efforts essential for the California sea otter's long term survival.
Will the magnificent Florida panther be America's next great conservation success story? There's certainly new hope. In recent years, their numbers have rebounded 10-fold from a mere 12-20 cats left in the wild in the late 1960s to an estimated 120-230 as of earlier this year.
Interchangeably referred to by their common names cougars, panthers, mountain lions, pumas, and catamounts, the Puma concolor species once ranged across almost all of North and South America, from Patagonia to the Canadian Yukon—the largest range of any wild land animal in the Americas. But as European settlers fanned across both continents, these big cats were widely hunted to protect livestock.
One of the first species added to the Endangered Species List in 1973, the Florida panther is the only subspecies left in the eastern U.S. Its population is mostly confined to south Florida swampland such as Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve. Now protected from hunters, its greatest threats today are habitat loss and cars. Tragically, as the Florida panther population has increased, so has the number of vehicle strikes. Florida's Department of Transportation has built a network of about 70 fenced wildlife crossings under busy roads to reduce the risks.
Six of the world's seven sea turtle species are threatened or endangered—but none more so than one of the smallest sea turtle species, Kemp's ridley. Found in the waters of the western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, almost all of the females return each year to nest along the same 16-mile stretch of beach near Rancho Nuevo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Another few hundred nests can be found on beaches in Texas, other Gulf Coast states, and even the Carolinas.
Through the mid-20th century, Kemp's ridley sea turtles were abundant in the Gulf. An amateur video taken in 1947 documented approximately 42,000 Kemp's ridleys nesting on the beaches near Rancho Nuevo on a single day. But habitat loss, pollution, and especially the accidental capture in fishing gear like shrimping nets have taken huge tolls on their population. By 1985, the number of nests found at Rancho Nuevo fell to a record low of 702, which represented fewer than 250 nesting females.
Over the last three decades, conservation efforts in Mexico and the U.S. have helped Kemp's ridley populations slowly rebound, with the number of nests increasing about 15% each year through 2009. In 2014, there were nearly 11,000 nests found on Mexican beaches, representing an estimate 4,395 nesting females. Kemp's ridley sea turtles are still at risk from pollution, oil spills, and fishing gear—but there is reason for hope thanks to concerted binational recovery efforts.
Leggy and delicate, the San Joaquin kit fox has been called "the ballet dancer of the canid world." It's the smallest member of the dog family in North America and also one of the most endangered.
Once found throughout the grasslands and desert scrublands of California's San Joaquin Valley, 95% of its historic habitat has been converted to housing, sprawl, and farms. Much of the remaining habitat is fragmented, making it difficult for kit foxes to find a robust network of dens, which they need to shelter from summer heat, give birth, and evade coyotes and other predators. Kit foxes are also vulnerable to poisons used to kill rats and mice, and to vehicle strikes.
In 2003, EDF helped broker a Safe Harbor agreement with Paramount Farming Company, a nut grower outside of Bakersfield, to install artificial burrows across 400 acres of orchards in northwest Kern County. This provides a migration corridor for kit foxes between two grassy areas, helping the foxes avoid Coyotes, which are faster and can easily overtake foxes without the safety of dens. Partnerships like this combined with strategies to conserve the existing habitat are key to the kit fox's long-term survival.