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Guest Column

Commemorating the Anniversary of the Endangered Species Act

Thanks to the Act, bull trout still swim Montana’s rivers, grizzly bears still roam the mountains, and peregrine falcons still soar the Big Sky

By Derek Goldman

On December 28, 1973, President Richard Nixon stated: 

“Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed … and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans [and] which we hold in trust to countless future generations of our fellow citizens.”

Nixon wrote these words upon signing one our nation’s most important and effective wildlife conservation bills into law — the Endangered Species Act — and they still ring true today. This successful piece of legislation has been at the core of our country’s commitment to protecting and conserving wildlife and the natural world for future generations. 99% of species protected under the Endangered Species Act have been saved from extinction, including the humpback whale and the American bald eagle. Thanks to the Act, bull trout still swim Montana’s rivers, grizzly bears still roam the mountains, and peregrine falcons still soar the Big Sky. 

The Endangered Species Act’s purpose is not only to protect and recover imperiled wildlife itself, but “to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved.” Indeed, the bill drafters recognized the importance of habitat, and that protecting and recovering a species would be for naught if the space it needs for survival was not also protected and restored. And by protecting habitat for species listed under the Act, we are also protecting those places an entire suite of other, more common species of plants and wildlife that reside there. For example, a stream that within designated bull trout critical habitat also protects cutthroat trout and ALL of the other resident aquatic species that live there. Similarly, strict requirements on National Forest road densities intended to protect grizzly bears also function to enhance elk habitat security, since these two species share nearly identical habitat requirements pertaining to road densities. Indeed, a GIS analysis we commissioned in 2015 revealed that the intersection of elk and mule deer summer range with protected lynx habitat was 80 and 90 percent respectively. In other words, Montana’s ungulates are better off today than they would have been if we had never protected grizzly bears or lynx under the Endangered Species Act. 

The Endangered Species Act was popular in 1973 when it passed the U.S. Senate unanimously and the House 355-4, and it remains so today. Polls of American voters consistently demonstrate solid support for the Act at nearly 90 percent, including across the political spectrum and all regions of the country. Here in the Northern Rocky Mountain region, 81 percent of voters support the Endangered Species Act. Nearly 75 percent of Americans believe that decisions on which species to list (or delist) should be made by scientists, not politicians. 

The Endangered Species Act also provides funding for conservation. Montana landowners, tribes, agencies and NGO’s have received nearly $30 million in Cooperative (Section 6) grants alone over a 10-year period to help conserve habitat for imperiled species. Nevertheless, the Act has been chronically underfunded. Faced with a growing and unprecedented decline in plant and animal biodiversity, we need Congress to fully fund the Endangered Species program in 2024 and beyond, so that biologists have the resources they need to recover species from the brink of extinction. 

As we commemorate this golden anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, it’s worth remembering that our unique, rare and imperiled species of fish and wildlife are part of what makes Montana the Last Best Place. We owe it to future generations of Montanans to be good stewards and to protect endangered species and the special places they call home. 

Derek Goldman is the National Field Director and Northern Rockies Representative for the Endangered Species Coalition.

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