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Endangered Species Act may be in danger

The Tennessee Coneflower is among the success stories in preservation of our natural heritage, through the Endangered Species Act. Thought to have moved to middle Tennessee, over thousands of years before the last ice age glaciers’ advance, it stayed there when the glaciers retreated, no longer found anywhere else.

The ESA law, passed unanimously by the Congress in 1973, states that “the United States has pledged itself … to safeguard, for the benefit of all citizens, the Nation’s heritage in fish, wildlife and plants.”

It has done this remarkably well. More than 99 percent of all species listed for protection under it have been saved from extinction. Among them, gravely endangered earlier but now de-listed as recovered, are bald eagles and the Tennessee Coneflower, both now at home in the Tri-Cities.

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration is changing the law’s regulations in ways that will significantly reduce these protections and limit public participation in the decision process.

Two principles of the ESA are being overturned. Congress meant the listing of both endangered and threatened species to be made “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data.” Now, sidelining science, economic considerations or cost to someone or some entity is to be a significant factor for listing. Threatened species – likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future – will no longer receive the same protection.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, reviewing the August 12 rule concludes that “The Trump Administration dismantles endangered species protections as sixth mass extinction looms.”

The mass extinction references a recent report from the United Nations according to which a million species are at risk of forever loss, in this century. Climate change is identified as the leading driver of the losses.

Were the Tennessee Coneflower to journey off again to preserve itself in the face of climatic forces, it would travel in direction opposite to its move here thousands of years ago. In the warming world under climate change, it would move northward or to higher ground, as some trees and other plants, and animals, are documented to have been doing.

Unfortunately, the UCS states, the new rule will prevent the responsible federal agencies from considering future effects of climate change on species. As though demanding the plant or animal to stay put through their now occupied landscape no longer is hospitable to their needs, the rule “makes it almost impossible to designate habitat” which a species might inhabit in the warmer future but doesn’t now.

The Tennessee Natural Heritage Program’s 2016 Rare Plant List contains some 300 trees, flowering and other vascular plants with endangered or threatened status. The first are “critically imperiled in the state (and) the species is particularly vulnerable to extirpation from Tennessee.” Those in the latter category are “imperiled within the state (with) few remaining individuals and vulnerable to extirpation.”

By far most of these were not at risk in other parts of the country where they live. Federal listing, implying endangerment across all their native range, applied to 19, and by that year (2016) the Tennessee Coneflower and one of our sunflower species were shown as de-listed, no longer needing special ESA protection.

In 1979, Echinacea tennesseensis was the first plant from our state to be placed under ESA protection. The state’s Heritage Office was a lead agency, with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, in planning and executing its recovery program (achieved in 2011). Protection measures included its planting in the state’s Designated Natural Areas, and assiduously “removing competing vegetation” to allow the new populations to thrive.

Where public entities, towns or businesses, or private owners are in lucky possession of the rarities of our plant heritage, one would hope that plain weeding would be done to maintain them. And that the Administration would learn citizens’ desire to see our plant and animal heritage preserved for future generations, with the help of an ESA as the Congress intended, if need be.

— Frances Lamberts