Changes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) are passionately argued across the full spectrum of public opinion. Perhaps more than any other environmental statute, it has historically pitted the rights of the individual against the right of government to protect species from extinction.
The July 1 decision clarifying the key word “significant” caused the same uproar. Environmentalists said the change would reduce protection while sportsman argued that the act was far too controlling. The Notice of Final Policy summarized the clarifications:
We, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) (collectively, the Services), announce a policy to provide our interpretation of the phrase “significant portion of its range” in the Endangered Species Act’s (Act’s) definitions of “endangered species” and “threatened species.” The purpose of this final policy is to provide an interpretation and application of “significant portion of its range” that reflects a permissible reading of the law and minimizes undesirable policy outcomes, while fulfilling the conservation purposes of the Act. This final policy provides a consistent standard for interpretation of the phrase and its role in listing determinations.
The definition of ‘significant’ now reads:
A portion of the range of a species is ‘significant’ if the species is not currently endangered or threatened throughout all of its range, but the portion’s contribution to the viability of the species is so important that, without the members in that portion, the species would be in danger of extinction, or likely to become so in the foreseeable future, throughout all of its range.
Some environmental groups are concerned that the changes will make it difficult for new species to be listed under the ESA. The interpretation now requires that a population be necessary to the survival of the entire species in order to be considered for listing, unless it is considered to be a Distinct Population Segment (DPS). Therefore, groups are worried that a population in danger of extirpation, or local extinction, may not be protected. In addition, the ESA will not cover historical ranges of species making it difficult to protect naturally reintroduced populations listed as extirpated since their survival is not necessary for the survival of the species.
Sportsman groups are concerned that the changes increase federal control and endanger the culture of rural Americans. One opinion article claims that opposing organizations care more about ending hunting and trapping than saving wildlife. Another article published by the Albuquerque Journal calls for a solution that incorporates the needs of wildlife as well as the humans affected economically by the ESA.
Species may become endangered due to human impact, predation by or competition from invasive species, and natural cycles. On July 18th one ocelot, representing 20% of the highly endangered male breeding population, was struck and killed after becoming stuck on a Texas roadway. On July 8th, two species of gartersnake were declared threatened due to predation and competition with introduced nonnative species like bullfrogs and sportfish. The month of July marks the battle to negotiate the manatee’s reclassification, although proponents for their protection say that a single red tide could kill 800 individuals.
As our relationship with the environment grows and evolves, continual changes will be needed to represent our current position.