The Endangered Species Act: Standing in Harm’s Way

By WILLIAM GEER, Director, Center for Western Lands of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: This article first appeared in the C.E.P (Conservative Environmental Policy) Quarterly


A growing base of climatological, biological and other scientific information has documented that global warming is real and has likely been escalating for the past century. Many people are wondering about our society’s future on a hotter and drier planet. Where do we look to accurately predict humanity’s prospects under human-induced climate change?

Dr. Thomas Kimball, renowned wildlife scientist and past executive vice president of the National Wildlife Federation, once said, “Man is an integral part of the animal kingdom. As our environment becomes less livable for the subjects of the kingdom, it also becomes less suitable for the king.” Kimball concluded that the status and trends of species diversity and the condition of fish and wildlife populations are the litmus tests of a healthy human environment. Mankind’s own best hope for successfully adapting to climate-induced environmental change therefore lies with helping diverse and self-sustaining fish and wildlife populations adapt to global climate change.

Our nation must continue its stewardship of natural resources to assure that the economic and ecological values associated with fish, wildlife, and their habitat successfully endure a changing climate. The ecosystem services – limiting floods, filtering water, recharging groundwater, providing a home to fish, waterfowl, wading birds, and many other organisms essential for life and climate regulation – provided by these resources make a compelling case for financial investment. The legal, moral, and ethical responsibilities that humans have for our environment dictate this approach. The spiritual values contained in the landscapes and inhabitants that we treasure call for this approach. Finally, Americans expect and deserve the quality of life attributes connected with these treasures.

A 2008 report, Seasons’ End: Global Warming’s Threat to Hunting and Fishing, predicts the impacts of global warming and climate change on the habitat and distribution of fish and wildlife in the United States, and implications for sustainable hunting and fishing. Big game will have to adapt to changes in their forage base and alter their migration patterns. Changes in water quality and quantity will affect saltwater and freshwater ecosystems and fisheries. Wetland losses predicted for the prairie pothole region will severely reduce waterfowl productivity in North America’s duck-breeding “factory.” Invasive species, parasites and disease-causing organisms may flourish in warmer temperatures, profoundly affecting habitat and challenging the survival of upland game birds.

With the unabated accumulation of greenhouse gases, human-induced climate change will likely alter conditions at a rate much faster than many species may be able to naturally adapt to. Natural resource managers must initiate specific adaptation strategies to ensure species survival, including restoring and protecting habitat, securing migration corridors, allocating water for fish and aquatic habitats, capturing atmospheric carbon in grasslands and forests, and developing regional and national adaptation plans. Our success will depend on learning which management techniques work and which do not, and adapting future management based accordingly.

The challenges are many, big, and complex, and not everything we think might help meet them – perhaps including some of our best ideas from the past – will ultimately prove to be viable, but we must move forward, as time is not on our side. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

Full implementation of state wildlife action plans incorporating measures to enable fish and wildlife to adapt to a changing climate may be the most universal adaptation strategy available. The wildlife action plans benefit all wildlife through comprehensive species management, which is aimed at improving habitats, and on-the-ground management strategies across large landscapes. Wildlife action plans receives some funding from annual State Wildlife Grants, but the balance needed for full implementation needs to be provided from natural resources adaptation funding in climate change legislation.
Passage of the Clean Water Restoration Act in 2009 would restore federal protections to millions of acres of isolated wetlands that are now in danger of being polluted or drained even though these areas are critical for waterfowl habitat and drinking water for more than 111 million Americans. Coastal marshes can be conserved if the sea is allowed to migrate inland rather than being held at bay by sea walls or levees. The North American Waterfowl Management Plan and habitat Joint Ventures are already succeeding in restoring wetlands and waterfowl habitat across large landscapes. The Joint Ventures are private- and public-sector partners working together to conserve the continent’s waterfowl populations and their essential habitats in large landscapes throughout North America.

Landscape-scale conservation on native prairie grasslands in the Prairie Pothole Region could protect our most productive duck and geese breeding grounds and sequester 1.485 million tons of carbon dioxide per acre per year through the creation of grassland offset credits resulting from either avoiding the loss of native prairie or from restoring grass on former cropland.

America’s wild trout populations stand to gain from on-the-ground strategies designed to combat the effects of climate change. Trout Unlimited has developed a four-part framework for securing the range of habitats needed by coldwater fish. It is called Protect Reconnect Restore Sustain. Protection strategies are applied to headwaters where the best habitat is found on high elevation public land, while restoration occurs in the more modified valley bottoms. Reconnection joins the upper streams to mainstem rivers. The sustain part is about engaging communities and the next generation in conservation activities in their home watersheds that will benefit trout, salmon and people.

The ability of state and federal resource agencies to protect and provide crucial habitat areas and movement corridors across the landscape will be the single most effective action to help big game populations adapt to changing climate. Numerous corporations, governments, conservation and environmental organizations, and recreation groups, spearheaded by Patagonia, Inc., have formed the Freedom to Roam coalition to educate people and governments about the critical need to protect ancient migration corridors that animals need to survive and by establishing protected migration corridors that connect crucial habitats.

Provisions to protect and restore habitat affected by climate change are included in the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), which passed the House on June 26 and is now before the Senate.

ACES limits the effects of climate change by imposing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions while investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. The bill creates the Natural Resources Climate Change Adaptation Fund needed by federal and state agencies to safeguard fish, wildlife and other natural resources. The fact that our leaders are acknowledging and taking steps to address the realities of our changing climate should be applauded by every citizen who cares about the future of our natural resources and our ability to enjoy them in the years to come.

It is now up to the Senate to step forward to include a natural resources climate change adaptation strategy and dedicated funding in its climate change legislation.