By Daniel Escobar, Earthjustice
At a checkup, a doctor takes a few measurements that can tell a great deal about a patient’s health—body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate and so on. In a similar fashion, the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Index gives us insight into the health of the earth through a measure of almost 4,000 species. Its latest analysis paints a worrying picture. It predicts a decrease of two-thirds in global wildlife populations by 2020—the same year President-elect Donald Trump will come up for reelection. The Trump administration has vowed to undo many environmental protections during the next four years, so the report’s findings have taken on an even greater sense of urgency.
According to the report, most wildlife is disappearing as a result of habitat loss and degradation. Logging, agriculture and other human development have made habitats unlivable for many land animals. Only 15.4 percent of the world’s wild spaces remain protected. Rivers and lakes—habitats humans also depend on for food and navigation—are similarly under greater threat. Deforestation increases runoff; without tree cover, rain erodes soils that then flow into rivers. Also, dams interrupt the movement of migratory species and the natural flow of nutrients through ecosystems. There are other threats to wildlife, too, including over-hunting and -fishing, as well as invasive species, pollution and climate change.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) establishes a framework for protecting U.S. wildlife and its habitats, but the act is one of many environmental laws facing an uncertain future under President-elect Trump. Ninety percent of Americans support the act, and it has proved incredibly successful in reviving animals on the brink of extinction. Now, lawmakers who have made continued efforts over the years to weaken ESA protections will have allies in the nation’s highest office.
The World Wildlife Fund report makes it clear that there’s never been a greater need to protect and uphold the ESA.
Specific actions can make a dramatic difference for ESA-listed animals. For instance, the report calls for the removal of dams to allow migratory fish species to reach their spawning grounds. Earthjustice, together with American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation, is calling for the removal of four dams on the Columbia-Snake River system in the Pacific Northwest to restore salmon runs that have plummeted by more than 95 percent. The salmon’s decline is sending ripples through river and ocean ecosystems, impacting the rare orcas that depend on the fish for food. We have an historic opportunity to tell federal agencies to bring down these dams so that salmon—and the animals that depend on them—can thrive.
Earthjustice is also working to protect another iconic species: the gray wolf. In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park, leading to a resurgence in their population, from around 100 wolves in 1995 to more than 1,900 in 2016. Without wolves, Yellowstone’s elk had crowded out foxes, mice and other species. When the wolves returned, there was a corresponding increase in birds, beavers, mice and bears. Despite this success, lawmakers continue to try and weaken legislation like the ESA that protects wolves. Earthjustice has fought against wolf management policies like Wyoming’s kill-on-sight approach, arguing that wolves will never recover if state policies allow for their unlimited killing. States must develop legitimate conservation plans for endangered species, not policies that target these creatures outright for political gain.
Other animals Earthjustice defends are not as recognizable as the gray wolf, but still play an essential role in healthy ecosystems. A bushy tailed, mink-like carnivore called the coastal marten was once thought extinct, but was rediscovered in 1996 in the Six Rivers National Forest. Also, New York’s largest salamander, the eastern hellbender, is becoming increasingly rare. Although hellbender populations have dropped by 40 percent since the 1980s and coastal marten populations remain below 100 animals, neither species currently receives ESA protection. Coastal martens face threats from rodenticide, trapping and logging, while hellbenders’ sensitivity to pollution makes them incredibly vulnerable. The coastal marten and the eastern hellbender will need the full protection of the ESA if they are to ever recover.
Early humans once huddled around campfires, dwarfed by the immensity of the wild lands that surrounded them. Now the tables have turned, leaving wild species with few untouched places to call home. The declining state of wildlife populations and new threats from an anti-environment President-elect should sound an alarm. We are at a pivotal moment; we must defend and expand the protections that endangered species have won in the U.S. Join us in working to defend our crucial wildlife. The health of our planet depends on it.