Environmental Politics and the Endangered Species Act

By Sahr, David | Social Education, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Environmental Politics and the Endangered Species Act


Sahr, David, Social Education


ON JULY 3, 1999, a photo of President Clinton and a bald eagle named "Challenger" appeared on the front page of The Washington Post The accompanying article explained that our national emblem was being reclassified from an "endangered" to a merely "threatened" species.(1) Listed as endangered in 1973, the bald eagle's recovery--though slower than expected a year ago because its habitat remains in short supply--is still expected to swell to a point where it will be removed from the threatened list. Achievement of this goal is testimony to the success of the Endangered Species Act.

Or is it? Many people say it was not this law which saved the bald eagle, but rather, other factors such as the general effort to clean up our environment and the specific banning of the pesticide DDT. While we as a nation are thrilled about the bright future of the eagle, this episode offers no definitive answer to questions about the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Two common questions are: Is the act working effectively to save endangered plants and animals? Is the act being abused in ways that encumber our nation's economic development?

The Endangered Species Act has been the subject of recurrent political battles almost since its inception. It has multiple supporters and detractors, and the rhetoric various groups employ to support their arguments is harsh and extreme at times. One thing is clear: the ESA is a wonderful example of both our nation's good intentions and the unintended consequences that sometimes flow from public policy decisions. This article looks at this controversial topic and suggests ways to explore it in social studies classrooms. Teachers looking for a law to use as a case study with students might choose the Endangered Species Act to exemplify how science and politics may collide with enormous ramifications.

Scope of the Extinction Problem

Odd as it may seem as we enter the 21st century, scientists still don't know how many species of plants and animals exist on Earth. Thus far, about two million species have been named and identified, closer to one hundred million.(2) (This includes everything from amoebas to elephants.) How are Earth's species faring? According to Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, 27,000 of the planet's species become extinct annually--or one about every 20 minutes. A more moderate extinction figure commonly voiced is one species lost about every eight hours, or three speaks each day, this being largely attributed to manmade changes in the environment.(3) Whichever statistic is used, the reality is a tragedy of catastrophic proportions, especially when viewed in terms of Earth's history. The "background," or average, rate of extinction without some unusual calamity is believed to be a few species every million years.(4)

Within the United States, the estimate for extinctions is approximately 4,000 spedes within the next five to ten years. Ninety percent of counties in the U.S. host at least one animal or plant on the endangered species list, making the problem national in scope.(5) According to the Endangered Species Coalition, 2,000 to 3,000 additional species should be added to the endangered list immediately to protect the 30 percent of U.S. wildlife it sees as imperiled.(6)

While there has always been species extinction on this planet, the enormity of the current problem is what worries some scientists. Since all living things are linked, the impact that the loss of even one species will have on others is definite even though we may not realize it. For example, a bird called the Dodo became extinct several hundred years ago on the island of Mauritius. In the century just past, it was noted that a certain tree, the Calvaria Major, was not being repopulated. Some biologists believe that the reason for the tree's reproduction problems is linked to the death of the Dodo, which ate its seeds and passed them on in a form more likely to germinate.

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