When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, its intention was to recover plants and animals threatened with extinction.
That takes place by learning what the species need to survive, what threats hurt those survival chances and what actions can boost survival opportunities. Once those questions get answered, we enact a plan to bring the species to that successful level and keep it there. It’s like getting a sick patient healed and out of the hospital to live an active, independent life. It is not like moving the patient from surgery to a nursing home, forever dependent on outside care.
Three prominent examples illustrate this process: the bald eagle, the gray wolf and the grizzly bear.
The bald eagle was one of the first animals listed under the Endanger Species Act. It faced threats from pesticide use that weakened its eggs, and loss of nesting habitat. The federal government banned the use of DDT – the pesticide that was affecting dozens of bird species – and made rules prohibiting killing of eagles or disturbing their nests. In 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the endangered list. Missoulians regularly see them flying up and down the Clark Fork River.
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The gray wolf essentially vanished from the Lower 48 states in the 1930s, considered a pest to ranchers and livestock. It was added to the ESA in 1974. After wild wolves started crossing the Canadian border into northwest Montana in the 1980s, federal wildlife authorities decided to reintroduce experimental populations to the Yellowstone National Park vicinity in 1995. After several years of legal challenges, hunting seasons and renewed protections, Sen. Jon Tester inserted a rider in 2011 on a Defense Department funding bill turning wolf management over to state wildlife officials in Montana and Idaho. Tester’s rider essentially bet that the federal wolf recovery plan was complete, and gambled that wolves could survive without endangered designations. That bet paid off: Wolves have become a feature of the Rocky Mountain landscape. While wolf management remains a contentious issue legally and socially, state control so far has balanced livestock protection, hunting seasons, and wolf population support.
Grizzly bears were listed as a threatened species in 1975, and have been under the supervision of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee since 1983. Unlike eagles, grizzlies pose a direct and scary (if statistically tiny) threat to human activity because they occasionally kill. Unlike wolves, grizzlies reproduce slowly. The deaths of a few crucial breeding females can quickly wreck decades of recovery.
In December, a draft rule to guide de-listing the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem was released laying out what standards state management plans should meet for the bears. On Thursday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke declared the draft process finished, although lots of grizzly advocates disagree that the recovery process is complete. They refute the grizzly bear committee's science, challenge the legitimacy of livestock owner complaints, and question the commitment of state wildlife agencies to restrain the pressure for trophy hunts and killing of “problem” bears. Lawsuits are inevitable.
But the fact is the IGBC has declared Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies recovered. It says the patient is ready to leave the hospital, and doesn’t have to spend the rest of its existence in a nursing home. This is a gamble. If the science overestimated the bears’ resilience, or the state plans allow too much killing, Yellowstone grizzly populations will tumble right back to endangered status. The patient returns to the hospital, assuming it has life enough left to save.
The Endangered Species Act created a process, with a beginning, middle and end, to help species recover, not keep them in limbo. That process gets shaped by scientific, social and political forces, and offers no illusion of perfection. But it is the tool we built in 1973, it has run its course and it's time for us to learn to co-exist with de-listed grizzlies.