Union of Concerned Scientists

Protect the Science, Protect the Species

As we face irreversible destruction of species and their habitats due to threats from habitat loss and fragmentation, overharvesting, pollution, climate change, and invasive species, lawmakers indicate they intend to attack the Endangered Species Act again. Under the current administration, we’ve already witnessed the introduction of several pieces of legislation intended to weaken the Endangered Species Act or specific species protections. Most recently, Senator Barrasso (R-WY), chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, announced interest in introducing legislation sometime this summer to overhaul the Act (here and here), despite the ESA’s history of overwhelming support from voters. These potential modifications would mean shifting the authority of implementing the Endangered Species Act from scientists and wildlife managers to politicians.

Science is a constitutive element of the Endangered Species Act, the emergency care program for wildlife. It is the foundation for listing and delisting threatened and endangered species, developing recovery plans for the continued survival of listed species, and taking preventative conservation efforts. This is both a boon and a curse. Since the Endangered Species Act relies on the best available science to make conservation decisions, it is highly successful—over 99% of the species protected under the Act have dodged extinction—yet this reliance on science also makes the law highly susceptible to outside interference from political interests.

Here I am on a nesting beach in Barbuda, monitoring critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles (see above), one of over a thousand species currently listed under the ESA.

The Endangered Species Act has withstood a barrage of politically motivated attacks over the years, from hidden policy riders to blatant editing of scientific content in federal documents.  The notoriety of the sage grouse, for example, comes more as a direct result of it being one of the most politically contentious species listed under the ESA than from its ostentatious courting rituals. The sage grouse issue illustrates what can happen when decisions to protect a species prioritize politics.

The implications of attacks on the science-based Endangered Species Act reflect broader attacks on science in general. Science should have priority influence on our policy decisions; otherwise regulated industries and politics will decide critical aspects of our everyday lives—like the safety and quality of our food, air, and water, and whether or not our nation’s biodiversity is protected. As scientists, we must continue to advance the role of science in public policy as a whole, and ensure that public health, worker safety, and environmental protections rely on the best independent scientific and technical information available.

My generation has been accused of ruining everything from napkins to handshakes. But we should recognize that we have a responsibility to protect imperiled species from permanent extinction so that future generations can experience animals like the bald eagle in the wild. Ensuring that this responsibility is informed by the best available science provided by biologists and other conservation experts is critical. That’s why as a scientific community, we need to make certain the decisions to protect wildlife at risk of extinction are grounded in science. Scientists, not Congress, should be informing decisions about which species deserve protection under the Endangered Species Act. We don’t need to “fix” something that already works. Please join me in urging Congress not to support any legislation to rewrite or modify the Endangered Species Act—our most successful conservation law.

PS If you need additional motivation to sign the letter, just look at this pair of gray wolf pups! Why would someone be against protecting endangered species?

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