November 03, 2023
Mention the federal Endangered Species Act almost anywhere outside the beltway or its expanding orbit, and you can expect to see eyes harden and jaws tighten. The act, which is considered by many to be America’s landmark environmental protection law, is intended as a backstop to prevent the extinction of diminishing populations of animals and plants. But its very purpose has demonized it in many of the places where these rare species live, as well as among the humans who hold the keys to recovery or disappearance.
Along with Internal Revenue Service agents, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has come to symbolize unwelcome and intrusive expression of federal oversight. But the ESA, which turns 50 years old this year, is a lot more complicated, and a lot less draconian, than most hunters, anglers and land managers expect. It’s worth considering how much the landmark law has both given and taken from American hunters, anglers and conservationists.
There’s a well-worn sentiment that once an animal is “listed” it becomes a ward of the federal government and is never de-listed. That’s simply not true. During the ESA’s 50 years, 46 species have been declared recovered and removed from the list. They include the bald eagle, humpback whale, and at least for now and at least in many Western states, gray wolves.
Other species have been removed from ESA protection, but for the worst reason: They have gone extinct since being considered for the list. These include admittedly obscure species, some of which are eight species of freshwater mussels. But that list of winked-out species also includes the ivory-billed woodpecker, the largest and most distinctive American woodpecker and the symbol of the wildlands of the Mississippi Delta.
I actually got a chance to hunt a longtime occupant of the Endangered Species List. The Columbian white-tailed deer is a small, twitchy deer native to the lower Columbia and Willamette rivers, and other large waterways of the Pacific Northwest. It simply couldn’t survive the sort of large-scale timber clearing, swamp draining and agricultural development that occurred in those fertile river valleys, and was listed as endangered as 1967, six years before the ESA was developed.
The ESA was established not only as a register of imperiled species, but as a toolkit to aid recovery of species like the Columbian deer. Federal oversight took management away from state agencies (unfortunate) but allowed federal resources to protect key habitats (fortunate) and to monitor population dynamics. Scattered herds on the Umpqua and Columbia rivers started increasing, and in 2003 the Douglas County, Ore., population of the deer was removed from the list. Population estimates hover around 6,000, and the state has a carefully managed hunting season for the species.
I drew one of the few tags for the Columbian whitetail in 2020 and killed a stud buck in an area of the Umpqua River where the species originally thrived. Though the area was vacant for decades, it is now filling up with deer, thanks in large part to the ESA.
I’m tempted to offer the same credit to the ESA for the recovery of wolves in the West, knowing that’s a hot topic for most of us big-game hunters. Regardless of how you feel about the swelling numbers and distribution of wolves, few hunters can deny that they make our landscapes more interesting. Without federal initiatives to restore—and then protect—wolves, there’s slim chance they would have become re-established at their current levels.
But wolves are also a good example of how the ESA has become politicized. Nearly everywhere they exist—in the Great Lakes states as well as the Rocky Mountain states—gray wolves have vastly exceeded population benchmarks established by federal regulators. Just as the Columbian whitetail is being successfully managed by the state, so should wolves be declared recovered and managed by state agencies through regulated hunting. That same dynamic describes grizzly bear management in the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems.
There’s another political expression of the ESA: its influence on wildlife management far beyond the borders of the U.S. The Endangered Species List totals more than 600 international species, including the African elephant, Thailand giant catfish and Asian wild ass. Given that U.S. law doesn’t apply to citizens of other countries, or that the habitat loss, unregulated harvest and other factors that contributed to the decline of these species isn’t under the authority of the U.S. government, you might ask why they’re included on the list.
“The ESA requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list species as endangered or threatened regardless of which country the species lives in,” explains a USFWS spokesman. “Benefits to the species include prohibitions on certain activities, including import, export, take, commercial activity, and interstate and foreign commerce.”
The ESA gives American authorities the grounds to regulate, say, the importation of elephant ivory. Still, it seems to many conservationists to be an overreach of authority into the affairs of sovereign nations. USFWS doesn’t have the authority to prohibit hunting of a listed species outside the U.S., notes the agency spokesman, but “the ESA does regulate the importation of such species.”
There is an exception, and it’s one that international hunters should note, even though it’s granted only under extremely limited circumstances. A listed species may be imported if “the import is for purposes that enhance the propagation or survival of the species” and the species “is taken from a well-managed and supported conservation hunting program.”
Happily, like most laws, the ESA is subject to periodic review, and any time a species is proposed for listing or delisting, a regulatory process allows for full public participation. Hopefully fewer species will be on the ESA in its next 50 years, a testament to the influence of both federal regulations and the broader wildlife conservation movement.