“The Endangered Species Act: A Conservation Legacy with an Uncertain Future”

10/22/18 by Rebecca Rider

The Endangered Species Act has sheltered native plant and animal life in the Unites States for nearly 50 years, but now it’s in need of saving. Ben Prater, Southeast program director for Defenders of Wildlife, spoke Thursday night at the Center for the Environment at Catawba College about the legacy of the landmark law, and about its uncertain future.

Prater is a graduate of Catawba and was involved in the unique construction of the Center for the Environment as a student. Dr. John Wear, founder and Executive Director of the Center, called him a “career conservationist.” Now, Prater heads the southeastern field office of Defenders of Wildlife, a non-profit that seeks to preserve endangered species through outreach, law and other measures. 

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is the preeminent piece of environmental legislation in the United States, but has come under fire in recent years from national leadership. Without it, many keystone species — those that keep their ecosystems healthy and thriving — could be in danger of severe habitat loss or extinction. 

“We are in some challenging times,” Prater said Thursday. 

He aimed to “bust some myths” about the law, as well as talk about its past. The very nature of the ESA, he said, was a hopeful thing. 

“The fact that congress thought to pass this act speaks to the social climate of our nation and our rejection of the ‘consume and throw-away’ lifestyle,” he said. “...The ESA really covers a wide gamut of values.”

However, recently, politicians and opponents of the statute have spread rumors and falsehoods about it, seeking to weaken public support and undermine its strength. 

“I’m here to hopefully set the record straight,” Prater said. 

One common myth is that the ESA is ineffective — something that is patently untrue, Prater said. According to studies, the ESA has been 99 percent effective, and very few species have been delisted due to extinction. 

“More have been delisted due to recovery,” Prater said. “...These iconic animals are thriving.” 

Opponents also tout that the law is a waste of taxpayer money. In reality, less than 1 percent of the federal budget goes to conservation efforts — and even less of that goes to the ESA. According to Prater, the bill is almost criminally underfunded. 

“As a country, we could do better,” he said. 

Another false statement is that the ESA is bad for the economy. This assertion ignores the billions that Americans spend on outdoor leisure each year, Prater said, including visits to national parks and wildlife observation areas. Wolf watching in Yellowstone National Park alone brings in 35 million dollars annually to the local economy. 

“The truth is, protecting wildlife can be a valuable boost to the economy,” Prater said. 

He also tore down other common myths regarding burden to states and landowners, and false claims that the ESA resulted in frivolous lawsuits. None, Prater said, were true. 

Finally, he reached some of the most misguided myths: That the law was outdated, and that extinction doesn’t matter.

In reality, the ESA is the most effective piece of environmental legislation in the nation’s history, and the extinction of species and loss of habitats can have devastating effects on soil, water and air quality, as well as on food production and the economy. 

“Each plant and animal is an integral thread in the web of life,” Prater said.

Now, the ESA is needed more than ever — and it’s never been under greater attack. According to Prater, the current congress has proposed more than 100 bills and amendments designed to weaken and undermine the ESA, and leadership at the Department of the Interior has tied the hands of federal agencies and sought to interject economics into purely scientific decisions. 

However, thanks to individuals, lobbyists and organizations like Defenders of Wildlife fighting back, most of those bills and other anti-ESA provisions have failed. 

“As of right now, we’re still holding the line,” Prater said.

But the fight is still ongoing, and Prater encouraged attendees to support organizations, speak to their representatives and use their voice as American citizens to preserve the law that, in turn, preserves America the beautiful.  

“The future of our plants and wildlife is, ostensibly, in your hands,” he said. 

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