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May 20, 2011

No Species Is an Island

For several years now, the U.S. Senate has proclaimed the third Friday in May to be Endangered Species Day. This year, the day has extra significance. The Endangered Species Act (the only thing standing between countless species and extinction) has come under unprecedented attack.

That attack is happening in spite of broad public support for protecting species -- a recent poll found that 84 percent of Americans are in favor of the Endangered Species Act. And we've got good reasons for feeling that way. Of course there's the obvious moral principle that animals and plants shouldn't be consigned to oblivion for no reason other than human carelessness or callousness. But it's more than that. To paraphrase John Donne, "No species is an island." Humans, too, depend on biodiversity and the richness of the web of life. Aldo Leopold, compared the loss of species to "throwing away, one-by-one, the engine parts of an airplane while flying."

What's more, the airplane's facing some serious turbulence. All living things -- including humans -- face new and daunting challenges in a world where the climate has been disrupted. Habitats are shifting and pressures on species are increasing. You can't preserve that web of life without also protecting the places it lives. We might think we're protecting habitat for this or that creature -- but in truth we're doing it for all living things, not least ourselves. That's the basis for the Sierra Club's Resilient Habitats campaign, which is working to protect places where plants, animals, and people can survive and thrive.

So, basically, we need a strong Endangered Species Act now more than ever. Unfortunately, that's not the way things have been headed lately, and the reasons are political.

The Fish and Wildlife Service requested $24.6 million for its endangered species listing program in 2012. In federal budget terms, that's a blip in the balance sheet. The FWS knows perfectly well that it's not enough money to do even the work that's required by law -- a huge backlog of species are waiting to be evaluated for protection -- but no one's willing to ask for enough to really get the job done. "Not politically feasible."

Even more troubling was this year's injection of politics directly into the Endangered Species Act when Congress approved a budget that, at the last minute, removed gray wolves in the Northern Rockies from the Endangered Species List in every state except Wyoming. Never before have politicians interfered to decide the fate of a particular species -- giving a thumbs-down like a Roman emperor at the Coliseum.

The Endangered Species Act works because it relies on sound, science-based management -- free from political interference. That's common sense, which is why 92 percent of Americans polled agree that decisions about wildlife management should be made by scientists, not politicians. That politics intruded anyway is tragic for the wolves and a serious blow to the integrity of one of our bedrock environmental laws.

Enough doom and gloom, though. For today, let's take a moment to celebrate the Endangered Species Act for its many successes during the past four decades. Here's to the bald eagle, whooping cranes, gray whales, grizzly bears, and other species that have made gains or even recovered. My wish for Endangered Species Day is that the thousands of species that are still waiting for protection will have similar success before it's too late.

And for the rest of the year: Let's work to ensure that the Endangered Species Act itself survives as well.

 

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