On Friday September 25, 2019 Colorado and 16 other states sued Republican president Trump’s administration to block pushbacks made to the Endangered Species Act. It was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who originally signed The Endangered Species Act of 1973 with bipartisan support. Throughout the 1970s, the act maintained bipartisan support. Beginning in the 1980s, with the Reagan administration, the act’s bipartisanship unraveled. Now, under the Trump Administration, the Endangered Species Act is a contentious partisan issue. Placing the newest round of changes to the act into historic context reveals that presidents of both political parties have alternately advanced and rolled back its protections over the past sixty years, shaping the Endangered Species Act to serve the priorities of their political moments.
Bipartisanship in Species Conservation: 1960s-Early 1970s
In the 1960s and 1970s the United States was in the middle of the modern environmental movement. During this time environmentalism was not a right wing problem or a left wing problem, instead it was the majority of people fighting to protect the planet. The environmentalist concerns of the 1970s were even reflected by postage stamps.
The fight for environmental conservation led to a variety of legislation being passed in the 1970s such as the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) in 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972. With the goal of species conservation, Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 to allow species native to the U.S. to be labeled as endangered and receive limited protection. Following that, Republican president Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969, prohibiting the importation and sale of endangered species in the U.S. and allowed for amphibians and mollusks to be classified as endangered. Finally, on December 28, 1973, Nixon also signed the Endangered Species Act, which improved endangered species’ chances of survival by requiring a recovery plan and habitat protection for endangered or threatened species. During President Jimmy Carter’s administration, Congress strengthened the Endangered Species Act by defining critical habitat as “any part of the landscape essential to the conservation of a species.” The definition of critical habitat is what has made the Endangered Species Act so successful.
Growing Divides in Species Conservation: Late 1970s to Early 2000s
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the U.S. economy was plagued by oil shortages, inflation, stagnant economic growth, unemployment, and sinking wages. These factors ultimately led to an economic recession from 1981-1982. Economic crises caused the environmental movement to stall as well.
President Ronald Reagan’s platform, which stressed economic advancement over conservation of the environment, reflected this change in Americans’ political priorities. On top of pressing economic issues, the ambitious environmental protection legislation of the 1970s was a victim to its own success, and improved environmental conditions to the point that the public’s focus shifted away from conservation. Subsequently, 1982 brought the first amendment that weakened the Endangered Species Act. This amendment made it easier for businesses owners, private land owners, and non-federal land managers to legally gain permission to harm endangered or threatened species.
In 1988, the Endangered Species Act was again amended to require federal agencies to notify the public about all species recovery plans and allow public comment on species recovery plans.  Federal agencies were then required to consider and review these comments. This was to the benefit of industry representatives, as it provided an opportunity to block critical habitat designation. In the 1990s the Endangered Species Act stagnated, and neither Republican president George H.W. Bush nor Democratic president Bill Clinton made significant changes. The next step back for the Endangered Species Act came under George W. Bush’s Republican administration in 2004 which exempted the Department of Defense from designating critical habitats for endangered or threatened species that reside on their land.
The Greater Sage Grouse and an Era of Partisanship: 2015 to Present
Political grappling over the Endangered Species Act continued, and endangered species like the greater sage-grouse suffered the consequences of weakening protections and erratic conservation policy. An endangered listing, however, would bring severe limitations on grazing, energy development and other activities across 173 million acres of public, state and private land in the west. Conservationists pushed for the bird to be listed as an endangered species to protect its habitat.
However, designating critical habitat for the greater sage-grouse would disrupt oil and gas extraction on the protected land. In 2015, the Obama Administration created a compromise that limited development and restored areas of core sagebrush habitat for the greater sage-grouse. The compromise was short-lived. In March 2019, the Trump Administration abandoned the compromise and allowed oil and gas development across millions of acres of greater sage-grouse habitat. The greater sage-grouse is not currently listed as an endangered or threatened species, and it is unlikely that the bird and its habitat will receive the protection they need under the act’s current form.
In response to the recent changes to the Endangered Species Act, 17 states came together to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Interior and Department of Commerce. The states involved are largely Democratic-leaning, and their lawsuit underscores the partisanship surrounding species conservation in the current political climate. If successful, the lawsuit will ensure that the Endangered Species Act will only examine the best scientific data available when protecting endangered or threatened species and their habitat, rather than factoring in the economic cost of protecting endangered species and the land they need.
However, despite widespread public support, conservation needs sustained effort to protect endangered species over the long term, which can only be ensured by developing a broad, apolitical consensus around species conservation.
–By Hailey Doucette
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