The Endangered Species Act celebrated its fortieth birthday on Saturday. Here, Orion contributing editor Terry Tempest Williams reflects on this major American achievement, and how it continues to shape our relationship with the natural world.
2013 is drawing to a close, and I doubt if one of the most significant events in my home state of Utah finds itself on anyone’s year-end list of consequence. A small wildflower that grows in the Kaibab Formation in Washington County known as a Gierisch mallow (Sphaeralcea gierischii) has finally been granted protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. Only eighteen populations or communities of these plants remain on Earth, approximately 5,000 to 8,000 individuals. This vibrant orange crepe-petaled flower with yellow stamens can be seen squeezed between Interstate 15 and the Virgin River.
Some may say, “So what?” But if we look at the success story behind the fortieth anniversary of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, we may be impressed by what a single law with vision can do. Birds like the bald eagle and California condor were on the path to extinction in the 1960s due to pesticides such as DDT. Today, the bald eagle population is vulnerable but stable, and the California condor has been introduced to the Grand Canyon through a captive breeding program, where their immense shadows cannot only be seen but felt soaring across the South Rim. These are regal birds of prey that underscore the American landscape.
The gray wolf was listed as an endangered species in 1967, having been shot, poisoned, and trapped to near extinction. In 1995, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park. Sixteen years later, given their ability to repopulate, the gray wolf was delisted in 2011. Of course, controversy follows the wolf and many of us are working hard to have that decision overturned. Old myths die hard, but for now, the wolf returning to the American West remains a success story of a threatened species’ recovery through human vigilance and care.
And then, there is the Utah prairie dog. Call them America’s meerkats. These communal creatures declined to perilous numbers due to the politics of livestock and an aggressive poison campaign, alongside plague and drought. In 1972, only 3,300 Utah prairie dogs remained. Names like “pop-guts” and “varmints” still follow them. But today, the Utah prairie dog population is close to 12,000. In some instances, their habitat is being restored by the very ranchers who opposed them decades earlier. Financial incentives have helped. The law motivates and educates. Utah prairie dogs stand outside their burrows as a small beacon of hope.
The 1973 Endangered Species Act has been more than 99 percent successful at preventing extinction of species under its watch.
May we honor and celebrate the fortieth anniversary of this noble decree and remember that on December 28, 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act into law. It was truly a bipartisan bill. The vote in the Senate was 92 in favor, 0 opposed; in the House, it was 355 to 4. This seems like an astonishment, bordering on the impossible, given the rancor in Congress today.
President Richard M. Nixon spoke these words when he signed the bill into law:
Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed. It is a many-faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists, and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans.
A journalist from Washington, D.C., recently asked me, “Who is the most powerful individual in the American West right now?”
“Sage grouse,” I answered.
“I’m serious,” he said.
“So am I,” I replied.
In the Interior West, where sagebrush covers the landscape like a sea-blue haze, sage grouse are driving the conversation around oil and gas development. The Bureau of Land Management projections show that nearly 96,000 new oil and gas wells will be drilled over the next twenty years in six states: Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. Oil wells could fragment 11.8 million acres of sagebrush and grassland habitat, an area larger than the state of New Hampshire. Development, as planned, could affect the greater sage grouse populations by 19 percent.
Historic populations of sage grouse once numbered 16 million. Today, the population may be half a million, and many local populations in the vicinity of oil fields are being drawn down to extinction.
One male sage grouse standing his ground on his ancestral lek against Shell Oil is a kin to the lone man facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square.
Sage grouse are the latest bellwether species sounding the call for restraint on America’s public lands. A “candidate” for listing in 2015, amendments are being madly written by every western state, including Utah, which recognizes the economic stranglehold this bird could render on the future of fossil fuel development.
Slowly but surely, the sage grouse is finding its way toward protection.
This is the totemic power of the sage grouse, who joins the ranks of other species who have changed the chemistry and power structure of communities—both human and wild. Consider the spotted owl and salmon in the Pacific Northwest, who saved millions of acres of ancient forests from being felled. Add the timber wolf and the grizzly as species now defining the Greater Yellowstone; the peregrine falcon who showed us the cascading effects of DDT; the black-footed ferret and its role in vibrant grasslands in relationship to prairie dogs; and the willow flycatcher and woundfin minnow who are measures of the health of the Colorado River—and so many more—from the Everglade kite to the monarch butterfly to the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, hundreds of plants and animals who are having an impact on how we understand the interconnectedness and integrity of fragile ecosystems.
The beauty of the Endangered Species Act is that it is a federal act of empathy, put into writing and upheld by law. It is an elegant act of mind and heart that is both visionary and inclusive. It proceeds from our Declaration of Independence and portends a Declaration of Interdependence. It gives us an opportunity to exercise our conscience and consciousness on behalf of all species.
The great consequence of the Endangered Species Act, over time, is that it ensures that we, as a species, will not be alone. We will remain part of a living, breathing, thriving community of vibrant beings with feathers, fins, and fur; roots, petals, and spines; trunks, branches, and leaves. It promises that creatures that walk with four legs or scurry on six or crawl with eight will move alongside Homo sapiens—our humanity, walking side by side, with our humility. Wild beauty sustains us. A wolverine becomes more than a thought, it is an heir to wonder.
What the plants and animals are asking of us is respect and restraint. What the Endangered Species Act designed forty years ago promises them is that we will try.
When my friend from Washington, D.C. asks me another question about where power resides in the American West, I will ask him to accompany me in the spring to smell the sweet fragrance of sage after rain. And in that moment of reverie, just maybe we will hear the drumbeats of sage grouse rising above the oil rigs on the horizon.
The Endangered Species Act has never been more relevant and never been more at risk. As a conscious and conscientious citizenry may we rededicate ourselves to its survival, especially as we face the future with climate change. Congress will need our support.
We must be creative. We must be collaborative. And we must exercise our compassion. Awareness is our action.
When I was writing the book Finding Beauty in a Broken World, I made the decision to link the plight of Utah prairie dogs with the Rwandan genocide. It was met with harsh criticism from human rights activists and literary critics. “You cannot compare a rodent to a human being,” one individual said. But I would argue, they missed the point. The loss of a species and the loss of a people are both predicated on the same qualities of prejudice, cruelty, arrogance, and ignorance, ultimately, creating the seed bed of war. We need a new conscience and consciousness in our relationship with Other. And this has everything to do with cultivating peace.
The Endangered Species is a both a policy and a prayer for what Albert Schweitzer called the three most important words we can embrace, “Reverence for life.”
Last month, I was invited to meet a lynx held in captivity while it was healing from a broken leg at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Idaho. I have never seen a lynx in the wild, but on that day, our eyes locked and I could not walk away. Finally, my name was being called. The people I came with were leaving. I left the lynx and then, at the last minute I told my friends I had forgotten something. In truth, I needed more time with the lynx. I returned. Our eyes met again with full intensity—and then, the lynx began to nod her head.
I will never know what this gesture implied, nor what the lynx was actually thinking. But for the rest of my life, I will remember her—believing that the animals among us are nodding their heads waiting for us to respond to this moment in time—we are all endangered species on an endangered planet.
What is required of us is love.
The Endangered Species Act is an act of love.
Terry Tempest Williams’s newest book, When Women Were Birds, was published in 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She lives in Utah.