On 28 June 1973, President Richard Nixon, a conservative Republican who launched his career with a furious barrage of Red-baiting, signed a new law, declaring:
Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed. It is a many-faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists, and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans. I congratulate the 93d Congress for taking this important step toward protecting a heritage which we hold in trust to countless future generations of our fellow citizens. Their lives will be richer, and America will be more beautiful in the years ahead, thanks to the measure that I have the pleasure of signing into law today.
The law passed with unanimous support in the Senate, with only four House Republicans voting no.
The law Nixon signed was accompanied by a report from the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries explaining what was known at the time about the extent of harm the bill was designed to ameliorate. One sentence stands out: “According to the Department of the Interior, there may be more than 100 species of fish and wildlife which are presently threatened with extinction.”
Today we know the problem is far greater than scientists knew at the time. As a 2005 scientific report noted, “Only about 15% of the known species in the United States have been studied in sufficient detail to determine whether or not they are imperiled. Any estimate of the total number of imperiled species in this country must therefore rely on extrapolations from this small number of comparatively well studied species to a much larger number of poorly studied ones.”
Despite the limited knowledge we possess, there are 2269 animals and plants in the U.S. and its territories identified as endangered, a number certain to grow as our knowledge base expands.
Here’s a look at species identified by state, via MSN [click on the image to enlarge]:
Enter the orange-ruffed Narcissus
Fast forward 45 years and the Republicans are singing a different tune,as Mother Jones reported a couple of weeks ago:
In a series of announcements. . . Trump administration officials and their Republican allies in Congress announced actions intended to weaken key portions of the Endangered Species Act. If implemented, these regulatory changes in agencies as disparate as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Fish and Wildlife Service could wholly transform the intention of the act by allowing economic considerations to supersede environmental concerns when classifying animals as “endangered or “threatened.” The changes would also shift the balance of authority from federal regulators to the states and strip protections from several animals whose habitats pose a nuisance for developers and oil firms. Stakeholders who benefit from these rollbacks do not reflect the majority of voters, or even the Republican Party, but their viewpoint, closely aligned with the GOP and Trump, has become ascendant in recent years.
“There’s been a pretty long-term campaign against the Endangered Species Act, really for 20 to 25 years,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Now, with Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress, the administration’s outspoken promise to protect the fossil fuel industry, and a president who has promised to revoke two regulations for every additional one he implements, the time is ripe for the campaign against the act to succeed.
But popular support for the act remains strong and solid
While the real estate developer in the Oval Office sees the Endangered Species Act as an obstacle to his real estate empire, the American public remains solidly behind the law’s protections for our fellow critters.
In the past two years, nearly 150 amendments, bills and riders aimed to weaken the U.S. Endangered Species Act. However, a new study indicates that four in five Americans support the act and this support has remained stable over two decades.
The Endangered Species Act is portrayed – by critics of the law, often by the media, and sometimes by conservation professionals – as increasingly controversial, partly due to the protection of species such as wolves and spotted owls. These portrayals suggest that public support for the law may be declining. However, new research indicates that support for this law has remained consistently high over the past two decades.
The fresh survey data and analysis are laid out in a new paper, published last week in the Society for Conservation Biology’s journal Conservation Letters[open access], by a team from Michigan Technological University, the Ohio State University and California State University.
Because of the rift between citizens and government officials, the authors say the Endangered Species Act has joined the ranks of issues like gun control and climate change where political action veers from public opinion.
Public support for the Endangered Species Act is not matched by legislation set to weaken it
The team – comprised of social scientists, ecologists and ethicists – found in a 2014 survey of 1,287 people that nine percent, only one in ten people, opposed the Endangered Species Act, while majority support for the act—79 percent, or four in five people—has remained stable for the past two decades. Additionally, this trend holds across people who identify with various special interests, including interests such as ranching and land rights that lobbyists claim are opposed to the act.
At the same time, the Endangered Species Act has been the target of an increasing number of proposals to weaken the legislation: prior to 2011, it was common to see around five such proposals a year; the number jumped to 30 in 2011, 40 in 2014, more than 60 in 2015. Between 2016 and 2017, politicians put forward more than 150 proposals.
John Vucetich, professor of ecology at Michigan Tech, adds that the false controversy around the Endangered Species Act has been amplified by new media. He explains that if the act was highly contested by the public, then the survey data should show a bi-modal split between groups that “strongly support” or “strongly oppose” the act.
“The Endangered Species Act is a genuine point of American pride; it’s considered one of the best laws in the world for conserving biodiversity,” Vucetich says. “So why don’t our representatives represent us?”
Political conservatives, ranchers and other interest groups support the act
The team assessed survey and poll data gathered in 2015, 2014, 2011 and 1996, using the 2014 data to look at people who self-identified their political affiliation as well as their affinity for various special interests, such as farming, ranching, land rights and hunting. They found that within groups that are often portrayed as opposing the act, there was actually a lot of support: 74 percent of political conservatives (15 percent oppose), 71 percent of farmers and ranchers (19 percent oppose), 70 percent of property and land rights advocates (21 percent oppose.)
Additionally, Vucetich and his co-authors dug into a case study to see if there was greater opposition to the act in regions of the U.S. where the protection of wolves – one of the most controversial of protected species—had been a high-profile issue. The researchers found support was similarly high across regions of the U.S.
The question that emerges is, why? Vucetich and coauthor Jeremy Bruskotter from the Ohio State University want to consider what prevents or entices government officials. Past research has documented that government officials are most responsive to wealthy elites and organized interest groups when it comes to politicized issues. Bruskotter suspected the public’s impression of the Endangered Species Act might not align with the perspective of business and political interests debating its future and seeking to roll back its reach.
“Scholars, the media and others keep talking about how controversial the act is and we wanted to know whether that was really true in the population at large,” he says. ““I don’t think at any time, maybe since the act was passed, have there been this many members of Congress working in direct opposition to the act, but that doesn’t mean that they’re acting in the interests of the people they represent.”
What Vucetich and his co-authors hope to call attention to is the widespread support for the Endangered Species—support that is not mirrored by political actions, which likens the issue to policy challenges around gun control and climate change.