50 Years of Saving Wildlife: Celebrating the Endangered Species Act!

Over five decades ago, the shores of Santa Barbara bore witness to a haunting spectacle – thousands of oil-slicked birds, fish, and marine mammals, forever silenced, lying along the coastline. Human negligence had unleashed 3M gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean, disrupting its delicate ecosystem.

“The ocean is boiling,” exclaimed a horrified local, a stark observation that resonated with the collective conscience of the American people. This grim event is one of many historic environmental disasters that prompted a nationwide awakening.

In the late 1960s, amidst a rising tide of environmental awareness, activists rallied Congress to enact various conservation laws, seeking to safeguard the imperiled flora and fauna of our planet. However, it was not until December 28, 1973, that a pivotal moment occurred when President Nixon affixed his signature to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This groundbreaking legislation extended federal protection not only to endangered wildlife but also to their habitats, acknowledging the interconnectedness of species and the environments they inhabit.

This month, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. It is a momentous occasion to reflect on the decades of its triumphs, recognizing its indispensable role in shielding vulnerable species from extinction. Moreover, against the backdrop of unprecedented climate change, the ESA's significance has only been magnified, emphasizing the urgency of preserving biodiversity for the well-being of our planet. Join us as we revisit the journey of the ESA, assessing its impact and considering its continued relevance in our ever-evolving fight against environmental threats. 

What is the Endangered Species Act and Who Implements the Act?

The Endangered Species Act aims to (1) protect and recover species at risk of extinction and (2) protect ecosystems that are fundamental to the survival of at-risk species. Two federal agencies, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) administer the ESA. NMFS handles marine species while FWS manages freshwater fish and all other species. When a species exists in both habitats, FWS and NMFS jointly administer the species. 

The ESA allows for the agencies to directly review a species’ status or for organizations and individuals to petition for the protection of species. Plants and animals can either be listed as “threatened” (at risk of becoming endangered) or “endangered” (at risk of becoming extinct). The agencies have a 90-day period to review a petition using the best scientific and commercial data available. If the species is deemed to meet listing criteria, the agency publicly announces its acceptance of the petition. This initiates a 12-month in-depth review of the species and its livelihood. This either ends in a rejection or a warranted listing, reclassification, or delisting of a species. It is important to note that economic factors are never considered in the process as the Act specifically prohibits such to prevent the reaping of environmental resources at the expense of at-risk species in the name of profitability. Furthermore, once a species gains listing status, the Act requires agencies to designate “critical habitat” for the protected species and outline a recovery plan to ensure long-term species prosperity. 

50 Years Later and the Fight to Protect Species Continues 

Although the ESA faced nearly zero political opposition when passed in 1973 amidst the modern American environmental movement, the act has become highly politicized. In an era of decreasing bipartisanship, the ESA suffers from administration whiplash as funding and priority dramatically wax and wane. Conservative administrations tend to favor economic development over the protection of species and habitat, which results in progressive administrations restoring the protections when in power, but the lack of consistency in administering the ESA decreases its effectiveness. Environmental legal scholars urge the nation to return to a time of bipartisan support for conservation especially as climate change threatens to exponentially increase species extinction and habitat destruction.

Despite frequent underfunding of functions outlined in the Act, the ESA has been highly successful as 99% of all species listed have been saved from extinction. However, timely response is critical to positive outcomes and such execution can be difficult when the volume of petitions far outweighs FWS and NMFS resources. We can look at the case of the Miami cave crayfish as an example of a significantly delayed listing. A mysterious creature that lingers in the porous limestone rock holding our drinking water, the crayfish emerged as an indicator of climate change threats. Rising sea levels push salt water into the Biscayne Bay aquifer, which not only destroys their freshwater habitat but also contaminates our drinking water. Additionally, as temperatures rise and populations grow, the freshwater in the aquifer is used up faster, which creates room for salt and brackish water to infiltrate the crayfish habitat. Furthermore, degraded water quality can reduce the crayfish’s food supply of decaying plants and microorganisms. Although the Center for Biological Diversity first petitioned to protect the Miami cave crayfish in 2010, the FWS did not issue any protections until September 2023 when it finally proposed to list the crayfish as “threatened.” Although the crayfish population did not reach extinction during the 13-year petition-to-listing timeframe, not all species have experienced such good fortune. Nearly 50 species have become extinct while awaiting consideration for ESA protection. While the Biden administration has taken great strides to strengthen ESA protections, we need continuous and strategic collaboration across local, state, and federal governments in addition to private landowners and conservation groups to ensure the Act remains impactful.  

Moreover, we are in an unprecedented period of ecological distress as scientists fear we have entered the 6th mass extinction in Earth’s history. Mass extinction is defined as 75% of the world’s species going extinct in a short geological period (less than 2.8 million years). Between 1970 and 2018, animal populations decreased 69% due to human activities such as habitat loss and excessive environmental usage, and scientists predict that over 1 million species are on track for extinction in the upcoming decades. Furthermore, human-induced climate change causes extreme weather events and global warming that jeopardize food and habitat security, putting the fragile balance between species and ecosystems at risk. While such data is great cause for concern, the robust legal framework of the Endangered Species Act provides hope for meaningful change and resilience amidst the crisis. For instance, the ESA can potentially be harnessed to make the following argument: while certain land may not be currently habitable for an endangered species, the land will be habitable for the species in 50 years due to climate change. As temperatures continue to rise, some colder climate habitats will become warmer and will transform into hospitable habitats for endangered species whose former habitats became unlivable. Thus, the land needs to be protected under the ESA. Such creative interpretations of the law will be increasingly necessary as we fight political opponents and rapid environmental destruction.

Miami Waterkeeper’s Commitment to Protecting and Harnessing the ESA

Since its founding, Miami Waterkeeper has employed the legal framework of the ESA on numerous occasions to protect South Florida species and their habitats. 

  • Port Miami Dredging: Although staghorn corals are listed as “threatened” by the ESA, the dredging of Port Miami between 2013 and 2015 destroyed over 278 acres of coral reef habitat and killed millions of corals due to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ failure to comply with numerous ESA requirements. Miami Waterkeeper along with partner organizations filed suit against the Army Corps in 2014 for violating the ESA. Such legal action catalyzed the NOAA rescue of several hundred staghorn corals valued at $14M and the production of many official reports and letters outlining the widespread damage such dredging projects have on coral populations. Additionally, the lawsuit secured the restoration of 10,000 ESA-listed corals across Miami-Dade County. Miami Waterkeeper estimates that Miami-Dade County may face $400M in costs to repair the coral reefs destroyed in the dredging as coral reef restoration typically costs between $1M to $1.5M per acre. Read more.
  • Port Everglades Dredging: Despite the disastrous environmental harm caused by the Port Miami dredging, the Army Corps did not take such findings into its Port Everglades dredging plans. As a result, in 2016 Miami Waterkeeper filed another ESA lawsuit against the Army Corps with co-plaintiffs all claiming the Army Corps was not using the “best available science” in its plans to avoid burying the protected coral reefs with sediment. In response, the Army Corps agreed to conduct new environmental studies before redesigning its plan and starting dredging so long as the plaintiffs put a temporary hold on the ESA lawsuit. The project is still on hold and dredging is not likely to commence until 2028. Read more.
  • West Indian Manatee Reclassification: Although manatee populations experienced positive population growth for four decades following their initial ESA listing, the FWS downgraded the West Indian Manatee in 2017 from “endangered” to “threatened” to the disapproval of many environmental groups as they claimed the downgrade was premature and not based in science. Subsequently, the species experienced a rapid population decline beginning in 2021 due to an increase in boating strikes and starvation caused by poor water quality killing off manatee’s main food, seagrass. In response, MWK along with co-plaintiffs filed a petition against the FWS in November 2022 to reclassify manatees as an endangered species under the ESA. The FWS conducted a thorough review of the species and found in October 2023 that the petition presented substantial scientific information and thus would initiate a status review to determine whether the petitioned acts are warranted. This ruling is positive progress in obtaining reclassification that would better protect the South Florida and Caribbean manatee populations. Read more.
  • Nassau Grouper Habitat Protection: Overfishing decimated the once flourishing Nassau grouper population native to South Florida and the Caribbean by 60% in the last 30 years which led to its ESA listing as “threatened” in 2016. However, despite the species protection, the Nassau grouper’s main habitat, coral reefs, experienced degradation due to (a) climate change impacts like sea level rise and ocean acidification and (b) poor water quality from nearshore pollution. As a result, MWK filed a lawsuit against the Trump Administration in September 2020 for failure to protect the critical habitat of an ESA-listed species. The NMFS responded in December 2020 by agreeing to protect the nearshore ocean habitat of the Nassau grouper. Read more

What Can You Do?

The health of species reflects the health of their ecosystems. Furthermore, the protection of endangered species directly impacts our health and well-being. Citizen engagement is integral to maximizing the ESA’s impact as citizens can help identify species that may have been overlooked and help push listings forward through petitions and subsequent legal action to ensure timely response. Moreover, citizen intervention prompts extensive scientific research to be conducted which not only provides legitimacy to protecting species but also may result in unintentional discovery that catalyzes groundbreaking innovation and thus impacts the world at large.  

Partner with Miami Waterkeeper! Here are just a few of the ways you can join our mission:

  • Attend public meetings. Come to County Hall and join us in holding elected officials accountable. Comments made on public record helped bring significant attention to critically endangered species and habitat issues. Follow us on social media to receive advanced notice of important public meetings. 
  • Sign our action alerts. We recognize that attending public meetings can be time-consuming and hard to fit into your busy schedule. As an alternative, you can sign our action alerts which take only a minute to complete, and directly send your message to elected officials. For example, we currently have an action alert to support our Port Miami coral reef restoration campaign. Your message will be sent to your County Commissioners and the Department of Environmental Protection calling for the comprehensive restoration of the damaged reef and a full list of lessons learned from the catastrophic dredging to prevent history from repeating itself. 
  • Volunteer your time at our nature clean-ups or habitat restoration events. By picking up trash and removing invasive species, we help maintain the natural habitat and positively contribute to the health of South Florida species, especially those that are threatened or endangered.  
  • Donate. As a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of the community to support our work focused on clean water, ecosystem protection, and sea level rise resiliency. Champion our mission by donating here.

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