California Condor
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Is the Endangered Species Act at Risk of Extinction?

Nicole Gregory

A new study finds that Americans overwhelmingly support the 45-year-old act. So why is it under threat? A Sacramento State professor explains.

California Condor

The California condor has been protected as an endangered species by federal law since 1967 and by California law since 1971. ​According to the National Audubon Society, in the 1980s the California condor was on the brink of extinction. Thanks to a successful breeding program, these large, majestic birdstheir wingspan is more than nine feetnow survive in California and around the Grand Canyon. 


The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been around for 45 years—Richard Nixon was president when it was signed into law in 1973—and over those decades, the legislation has been credited with saving the Yellowstone grizzly bear, the California condor, and the bald eagle, among other threatened species.

More recently, though, proposed changes by the U.S. Department of the Interior could weaken the act, which was put in place to conserve and protect species of animals, fish and plants and their habitats from extinction due to human activity.

"The proposed revisions have far-reaching implications," said the New York Times in July, "potentially making it easier for roads, pipelines and other construction projects to gain approvals than under current rules." It would also become more difficult to protect species that have been labeled "threatened."

A Well-Loved Law

Yet most Americans support the act as it is, says Ajay Singh, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at California State University, Sacramento.  "There's a strong majority that supports it that has been consistent for the last 20 years," says Dr. Singh, who contributed to research of Americans' opinions about the Endangered Species Act published in July in Conservation Letters, a journal of the Society for Conservation Biology.

"Even during the 1990s, when you were seeing some opposition towards the spotted owl [when logging was halted to protect forests where spotted owls live], support [was] … around 80 percent. The most recent poll we pulled out was upwards of 90 percent" of support for the ESA, notes Singh.

So what's driving the push to change this critical piece of legislation? Environmentalists say the interests of developers and logging and oil companies are behind the proposed changes that would allow economic factors to be considered when deciding if a species should be put on the list. "Essentially what you're doing is putting a price tag on that species," says  Singh. "How much is that species worth? Is it 100 million?" 

in a recent poll, MORE than 90 percent of americans said THEY Support the endangered species act.​

Those who support the Department of the Interior changes say the ESA's regulations haven't been updated in decades and need to be streamlined and made less onerous for business and industry.

Biodiversity is Critical

But some biologists say calculating how much a particular species is worth ignores the value of biodiversity for humans. (Biodiversity is defined as the number of different species of plants and animals within an environment.) 

"Biodiversity should be a major consideration when protecting an endangered or threatened species," says Joshua S. Reece, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at California State University, Fresno, "because, ethically, we have a duty to not destroy every species but our own, and selfishly, having biodiversity makes our lives more healthy and pleasant, and there is a large body of work documenting those benefits."

The Endangered Species Act has sometimes sparked criticism, as when the gray wolf, once near extinction, began to proliferate, alarming ranchers, farmers and homeowners. Yet even these groups have supported overall species protection, says Singh. "[Our research] found that when we take a look at environmentalists, animal rights advocates, [and] conservationists, you saw some strong support for the Endangered Species Act."

And, he adds, "when you took a look at farmers and hunters and property rights advocates and gun rights advocates, what you saw was that there was still a majority of those who affiliated with those groups were still supporting the Endangered Species Act."

"No one thinks that anyone's livelihood is worth less than a fish or a bird," says Dr. Reece. "But a lot of us think that nobody's private profits should come at the cost of the ecosystems upon which we all depend."

How to Support the Endangered Species Act

One of the best ways to show your support for threatened species is to get involved with science-backed environmental groups such as Sierra Club, National Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Defense Fund that legally fight regulation changes and corporations that negatively affect the environment and wildlife.