The Endangered Species Act turns 40
By Deb Markowitz and Dorothy Allard
Commentary | March 16,2014
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur/Staff file photo
The common loon was once endangered in Vermont.
A little over 40 years ago, the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) was passed into law. In Vermont, it is common to see osprey and loons, so it is hard to believe that merely a few decades ago, these birds were vanishingly rare in our state. These species, as well as hundreds of species of plants and animals from around the country, have been saved from extinction in large part because of the ESA and comparable state legislation like our own endangered species law.
Let’s think back 40 years. In 1974 Republican Richard Nixon was President, and Congress was conducting its investigation into Watergate; the average cost of a home was $35,000 and the price of a gallon of gas was 40 cents; families gathered around the television to watch All in the Family and The Waltons, and the United States had finished its withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. This was the backdrop for the passage of a whole host of new environmental protections, including the ESA. These far-reaching protections were passed with strong bipartisan support in Congress and were signed into law by Nixon.
Under the leadership of Gov. Deane Davis, Vermont passed the Protection of Endangered Species Act in 1972, even before the federal law was enacted. Our law listed several species as endangered in Vermont and prohibited harming them, including the American marten, lake sturgeon, osprey, bald eagle, and peregrine falcon. The law was updated in 1981 and continues to provide the foundation for the Agency of Natural Resources’ efforts to protect these species and the lands and waters on which they depend.
Working hand in hand with the Endangered Species Committee (volunteers who advise the Secretary on issues related to implementing the Endangered Species Act) and its Scientific Advisory Groups, the ANR scientists in its Wildlife Diversity Program have worked hard to identify and protect species at risk and then help these endangered and threatened species recover.
Over the years we have partnered with Vermont’s trappers to implement conservation strategies to minimize risks to marten and lynx, and we have protected vital lynx habitat in the Northeast Kingdom. Sturgeon continue to swim and spawn in Vermont’s waters and we are working on a long-term recovery plan for the species.
We have identified and protected bald eagle nesting sites, boosting the state’s population from zero to 16 nesting pairs in just ten years. Our efforts have also been rewarded with recovered populations of osprey, peregrine falcon, and loon, now removed from the state’s endangered species list.
Now that forty years have passed, we face, perhaps, even greater challenges. Global climate change is causing extreme fluctuations in weather, as well as drought, floods, ice and fire, and weakens species already at risk. In Vermont, the warming climate impacts our high alpine habitat, and is causing a rapid increase in the spread of forest pests and invasive species. Increased rainfall rates mean we have more pollution running into our lakes and streams, threatening important spawning grounds of many fish species.
In light of the uncertainties we face from our rapidly changing climate, the challenge ahead of us may seem overwhelming. But if nothing else, working together for the forty years since the Endangered Species Act was signed into law has proven that we can find a way to protect the biodiversity that makes our planet and its ecosystems work for all of us. In one of the great comeback stories of the last century, the bald eagle, gray whale, American alligator and many other species were saved from becoming consigned to memory because of the federal Endangered Species Act. The world is a better place for it, and so are we.
Deb Markowitz is secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and Dorothy Allard is chairwoman of the Vermont Endangered Species committee.