I don’t really recall most of the details, but I still vaguely recollect one day when I was a kid when I saw a bald eagle. Perhaps it stands out in my memory because people like my dad or my brother were excited by what was then a rare sight. (My brother notes, correctly, that back when we were kids, if you told anyone you saw a bald eagle, which was then headed toward extinction, they probably wouldn’t have believed you.)
Now, let me tell you about a bitterly cold January afternoon a few years ago when I was at Gavins Point Dam shooting some photos. When I arrived, there were about a dozen eagles perched in the trees along the north shore of the tailwaters, and before long, those raptors were skimming the open water for fish. You aren’t supposed to approach or spook these birds, but the eagles had no problem ignoring me as they went about their sorties, flying right over me in the process. So, during those few chilly minutes, I saw more eagles between each blink of my eyes than I ever did throughout my entire childhood.
The recovery of the bald eagle, once an endangered creature, is a terrific success story, and it’s due largely to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973. This law was established to protect and revitalize species that are threatened with extinction as a “consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation,” according to the legislation. Decimated by agriculture pesticides, the bald eagle population in the U.S. was reduced to an estimated 412 nesting pairs by the 1950s. Now, it’s estimated that the number of nesting pairs is approaching 10,000 in this country alone. Bald eagles were removed from the endangered list in 1995 and the threatened list in 2007, although they are still protected.
The ESA has been in the news this week, and as is typical, not for a good reason. The Trump administration has just published new rules that loosen some of the ESA’s protections, declaring that it’s lifting some of the burdens that come with this law. Critics of the move say the changes were made to “very likely clear the way for new mining, oil and gas drilling, and development in areas where protected species live,” reported the New York Times.
Species protection isn’t a particularly easy mission, nor is it always popular. When I get into discussions about dam releases along the Missouri River, I still hear grumbles about the adjustments that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers annually makes for least terns and piping plovers. It’s probably not unlike the complaints loggers in the Pacific Northwest made about the northern spotted owl, or what construction designers might utter when coping with the Topeka shiner in local waterways.
But it’s an essential task — not one to be taken lightly or discarded whenever it’s economically convenient.
To be sure, ESA rules can be a perplexing pain. For instance, work had to be halted briefly on a new water facility near Yankton’s Paddlewheel Point a few years ago when nesting eagles were found directly across the river but still almost a half-mile away; it was uncertain whether the construction work might disturb them and, thus, violate the law. Conversely, there were eagles again using a nest this summer at the Midway access unit in the Lewis & Clark Recreation Area, and they were perched literally right above a busy beach area. The birds don’t seem to mind it at all.
The ESA’s value is in the eye of the beholder. The act has been credited for saving or preserving 99 percent of the species that are listed for protection, but critics note that only about 1 percent of the species have been de-listed from protection, which they say brings into question the ESA’s overall effectiveness. Critics also rail that the ESA prioritizes animals over people by sometimes handcuffing business interests ranging from ranchers to oil producers, who want a freer hand to operate as they did in the “untampered” pre-ESA days — which, of course, is what helped necessitate the ESA in the first place.
Nevertheless, saving endangered species is a vital undertaking for, among other things, human survival. The administration’s new rules come in the wake of a United Nations report that says nearly 1 million species may face extinction in the coming decades due to human activity. The report opened with these ominous words: “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history — and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely …”
What must humanity do to reverse this grave trend?
Well, probably not what we’re doing this week with the ESA.
There are those who believe that humans have a divine, manifest dominion over the earth and its resources, which are free for us to utilize and consume as we see fit. But with that dominion must also come wisdom; this is the only earth we have, after all.
So, bear in mind the successes of species protection, like the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon and the gray whale.
And also think of what we’ve lost, like the passenger pigeon, the dodo, the Tasmanian tiger and the West African black rhinoceros — all of them gone now …
Like the bald eagle could have been — but isn’t.
And that is the ultimate measure of a law that’s doing what it’s supposed to do — which means, sometimes, saving them from us.
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