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Birthday of the Endangered Species law

Earth Resting Atop a Leaf --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis
Earth Resting Atop a Leaf — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

By: Frances Lamberts

With a deep appreciation of natural science and a lifetime avocation for knowledge of birds and other animals, Teddy Roosevelt often spoke and wrote about need for wildlife preservation. Beyond their usefulness to humans and importance for fully functional landscapes, he saw wildflowers and animals as adding to “the joy of living of most men and women.” He held that, on “the melancholy date” at which a species ceased to live, an “entire lexicon of knowledge” was destroyed.

To guard against the risk of extinction of more members of the native fauna, with national laws for wildlife preservation yet lacking, he started a system of sanctuaries on federally owned lands. Beginning with a tiny, 3-acre island in Texas to save brown pelicans and adding 52 more refuges during his two terms in office, the system now encompasses 560 refuges country-wide, managed since the 1940s by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in the Interior Department.

Roosevelt envisioned that, at some point in the future, public sentiment would demand America’s wildlife heritage to be legally protected. This came to pass when, on this day in 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act.

In a Special Message to Congress in February the year before, President Nixon had admonished that body to act on his Environmental Program. “All across this great land,” the message said, “each of us has a stake in … clean air and clean water, the wise use of our land, the protection of wildlife and natural beauty (and) parks for all to enjoy.” These being “the birthright of every American,” it continued, Congress needed to act more quickly and decisively to guarantee that right.

Nixon’s assessment in the message – that need for protection “is literally now or never” – is most particularly true for species at risk of disappearance. Whether plant or invertebrate animal, fish or bird or mammal, once extinct they cannot be brought back.

When the Congress adopted the ESA, the U.S. Senate approved it unanimously, the House by a 390-12 vote.

It is the foremost such law, worldwide, having kept alive, in our country alone, more than 2,000 species. It saved our national symbol – locally we can now see a bald-eagle pair raising young in a tree overlooking Boone Lake, in Wing Deer Park. It saved the Tennessee coneflower which, moving south over hundreds of years during the last ice age became endemic in Tennessee, wiped out everywhere else by the glaciers. Nearly extinct in the 1970’s and our State’s first ESA-listed plant, it can now be seen in the Ardinna Woods Arboretum.

It is worrying to learn of the nomination of Al Zinke to head the Interior Department since, during his short tenure in Congress, he has voted against practically all endangered-species, fisheries and other environmental-protection bills, and against citizens’ right to provide input in the management of the public resources.

One hopes the incoming President will maintain the wildlife “birthright of every American” that his predecessors espoused, and that the Senate in confirmation hearings will critically review nominees’ suitability and action record in that regard.