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Photo: glasseyes view / Flickr

“If you look at how much money is spent on the other side and the power of wildlife opponents to hire lobbyists, to give campaign contributions and to constantly promote messaging on this issue, it’s a pretty formidable opponent,” Leda Huta, Executive Director of the Endangered Species Coalition, told Planet Experts. “Wildlife doesn’t have a voice, endangered animals need every single American citizen to stand up for them.”

Since Citizens United passed in 2011, wildlife opponents – financed by oil and gas interests – have ardently tried to dismantle the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by attacking it over 230 times. In most cases, these attacks have been stopped by civilian lawsuits; but with Trump in office, long-time anti-environmental mercenaries like Rob Bishop, John Barrasso and Ryan Zinke – who even voted for legislation in opposition of an ivory ban – are licking their chops at the opportunity to “reform” the Act and open up public lands – now refuge to thousands of at-risk animals like wolves, bears and eagles – for oil, gas, logging and mining interests. Indeed, Republicans just introduced a bill to immediately sell 3.3 million acres across 12 states, though it was repealed following outrage from environmentalists, hunters and anglers.

The Money Behind Endangered Species Reform

Oil and gas giants like the Koch brothers and the American Petroleum Institute spend millions every year to support political candidates. From 2008 to 2016, industry spending on lobbying alone amounted to over $1.25 billion.

Simultaneously, these same companies and interest groups are funneling money through backdoor “donations” to the National Rifle Association (NRA), Safari Club International and the Congressional Sportsman’s Foundation, all of which have substantial sway in Washington and have been pushing for ESA reform themselves.

What Reform Would Look Like

Attempts to reform – or as Huta says, destroy – the ESA have been taking place for years but have been primarily focused on piecemeal deconstruction by targeting specific species – like the sage grouse – and their habitats.

A greater sage grouse on public land managed by the BLM. (Photo: Bob Wick / BLM)

A greater sage grouse on public land managed by the BLM. (Photo: Bob Wick / BLM)

Now things are changing. With the rise of the rightwing government, Rob Bishop, Utah Republican Congressman and Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and his cronies are set to “invalidate” the ESA, which would “dismantle the act wholesale,” noted Huta.

The reform agenda is focused on delisting endangered species and effectively removing restrictions on their habitats, capping the number of species listed, making it harder for citizens and civil society to file suits supporting conservation, and decentralizing decision authority so states and private entities– rather than the federal government – have rights over public lands.

It’s not logical to say the ESA has failed because it’s not delisting species, explained Huta.

“The ESA has a 99 percent success rate of bringing species back from the brink of extinction,” she said. “We compare a species to an emergency room patient. In some cases, there are only a few dozen left and we have to give them the time and protections they need to recover.”

If the reforms do pass, there will be significant challenges for wildlife and conservationists. For one, “Wild animals don’t recognize state boundaries,” said Huta, who reminisced about watching the captivating expedition of Journey, the first wolf in California since the 1920s, as he crossed from Oregon to the golden state.

Another consideration is that each state has different laws and resources allocated for protecting endangered species. California, for example, has the second most endangered species in the nation and the largest conservation budget, Huta said. But for the most part, although states – through the Fish and Wildlife Service – generate income via hunting licenses and related fees, there is a paucity of state-level resources for conservation efforts. Abolishing federal funding would only increase the risk of states selling public lands to private parties.

“Legally, Congress and Trump have the ability to pass a new law that would completely reform the Endangered Species Act and that’s what they’re trying to do,” said Leda.

Already this year, Congress has introduced the Gray Wolf State Management Act that would remove the gray wolf and its habitat from ESA protection in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Where the Battle Lies

While the wolves in the wild are threatened, we can’t stand by and watch the wolves in the White House take hold of the proverbial chicken coop.

“It is crucial for grandparents and parents to protect these species for future generations and we, the American people, have a moral and ethical responsibility to steward our natural history and heritage,” Huta said. “Our strategy is to simply let them (Congress and the White House) know where Americans stand.”

The Coalition will continue to pursue citizen suit provisions (lawsuits by private citizens to enforce a law), which have been key to enforcing the ESA, and as of yet, have not been curtailed by Congress.

On a state level, the Endangered Species Coalition is working with allies from conservation organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity, The Humane Society, Defenders of Wildlife and others to ensure state management plans are as strong as possible.

Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona is one of many stunning landscapes across America's public lands. (Photo: Bob Wick / BLM)

Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona is one of many stunning landscapes across America’s public lands. (Photo: Bob Wick / BLM)

A group of over 100 outdoor apparel companies, led by REI, also joined the fight by sending a letter to Utah state officials encouraging them to preserve wildlife and keep public lands public. Patagonia and Black Diamond went so far as to threaten to move the Outdoor Retailers show – which pours about $50 million into the state every other year – to another state if the Utah sells national parkland. Find out more by searching #OurWild and checking out The Wilderness Society.

The health and medical sectors are also concerned about protecting endangered species and habitats because they present potential cures for diseases, Huta said. For example, the taxol compound, derived from the Pacific yew tree, is used to treat thousands of women with ovarian cancer each year.

The unification of citizens, civil society, progressive statesmen and interested businesses spark a beacon of hope in the fight against corporate interests. Nonetheless, the trigger-happy congress and President Trump, who previously stated his dissatisfaction with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s “abuse” of the ESA to stop oil and gas operations, plan to attack America’s wildlife and public lands head on.

What You Can Do to Help

“The most important thing you can do right now is to contact your senators and representatives to tell them not to vote for ESA reform,” advised Huta. “You can also participate in the Endangered Species Day on May 19th and check out endangered.org to learn more about the Coalition’s efforts.”

We have to stay informed, make our voices heard and stand for our nation’s public lands and the species that call them home.

As Theodore Roosevelt said, “I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”

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