10 Success Stories Thanks to the Endangered Species Act
Forty years ago this month, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act—our nation’s safety net for fish, plants and wildlife on the brink of extinction. The Endangered Species Coalition marks the anniversary with a new report highlighting a few of the great wildlife conservation accomplishments since the Act’s passage in 1973.
“Any law would be fortunate to have the kind of record that the Endangered Species Act does,” said Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition. “Turning 40 never looked so good. To bring species after species back from the very edge of extinction—that kind of success is a remarkable testament to what we Americans have accomplished.”
The report, entitled Back from the Brink: Ten Success Stories Celebrating the Endangered Species Act at 40, highlights ten species that—thanks to the Endangered Species Act’s protections—are either steadily improving or have been recovered and removed from the list of imperiled species.
They include the nēnē goose, American peregrine falcon, El Segundo blue butterfly, Robbins’ cinquefoil, bald eagle, southern sea otter, humpback whale, American alligator, brown pelican and the green sea turtle. All of the species in the report were nominated by Coalition member groups from around the country. A panel of distinguished scientists then reviewed the nominations and decided which species to include in the report.
More than 1,300 imperiled species of plants, fish and wildlife in the U.S. have been protected by the Endangered Species Act, and only ten have gone extinct, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Additionally, a recent study found that 90 percent of protected species are recovering at the pace expected in their scientific recovery plans. Biologists have indicated that the task of recovering a species from near-extinction is a decades-long endeavor.
“Thanks to wisdom and the vision of Congress in 1973, our children will have the opportunity to witness the magnificent breaching of a humpback whale, or hear the call of the peregrine falcon,” said Huta. “We owe it to future generations to continue to protect our endangered species and the special habitats they call home.”
When President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law on Dec. 28, 1973, he announced, “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed. It is a many-faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists, and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans.”
The Endangered Species Coalition has also produced a slide show to accompany the report, featuring stunning photos of each of the ten species in the report.
Ten Success Stories Celebrating the Endangered Species Act:
Habitat protection and captive breeding programs have rebuilt Hawaii’s nēnē goose population from the brink of extinction in the mid-1900s to approximately 1,300 individuals in 2013. Still listed under the Endangered Species Act, the nēnē is also protected by collaborative programs with landowners designed to bring the goose to full recovery.
American Peregrine Falcon
The U.S. population of peregrine falcons dropped from an estimated 3,900 in the mid-1940s to just 324 individuals in 1975, and the falcon was considered locally extinct in the eastern United States. Their comeback has been truly remarkable—today, there are approximately 3,500 nesting pairs.
El Segundo Blue Butterfly
By 1984, only about 500 of these butterflies remained. The butterfly has rebounded significantly, with an astonishing 20,000 percent comeback recorded in 2012. The resurgence of the El Segundo blue butterfly is an inspiring story of the Endangered Species Act’s ability to protect critical habitat.
Although it was once close to extinction, today the original Robbins’ cinquefoil population on a small, rugged site in New Hampshire’s White Mountains numbers about 14,000 plants, with 1,500 to 2,000 flowering individuals. In a remarkable win for the Endangered Species Act, Robbins’ cinquefoil was officially delisted in 2002.
By the early 1960s, the count of nesting bald eagles plummeted to about 480 in the lower 48 states. Today, with some 14,000 breeding pairs in the skies over North America, the bald eagle endures as a testament to the strength and undeniable moral correctness of the Endangered Species Act.
Southern Sea Otter
Sea otters once numbered in the thousands before the fur trade and other factors reduced their numbers to about 50 in 1914. Listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1977, this remarkable species rebounded to approximately 2,800 individuals between 2005 and 2010.
The whaling industry dramatically depleted humpback populations from a high of more than 125,000; by the mid-1960s, only 1,200 individuals swam in the North Pacific. That tiny population of humpbacks has swelled to more than 22,000 members today due to a strong recovery program implemented under the Endangered Species Act.
By the 1950s, the American alligator had been hunted and traded to near-extinction. Captive breeding and strong enforcement of habitat protections and hunting regulations have contributed to its resurgence. Alligators now number around 5 million from North Carolina through Texas, with the largest populations in Louisiana and Florida.
Brown pelicans were dramatically impacted by habitat destruction and DDT. Driven to extinction in Louisiana, pelicans have made a dramatic comeback under the Endangered Species Act; in 2004, the population in Louisiana numbered 16,500 nesting pairs. Thanks to ambitious reintroduction programs, the brown pelican was fully delisted in 2009.
Green Sea Turtle
In 1990, fewer than fifty green sea turtles were documented nesting at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s east coast. This 20-mile stretch of beach hosted more than 10,000 green sea turtle nests in 2013, making this one of the greatest conservation success stories of our time.
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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