What a country chooses to save is what a country chooses to say about itself.
– Mollie Beattie, US Fish and Wildlife Service Director (1993-1996)
On December 28, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the world’s first Endangered Species Act, a revolutionary piece of legislation whose value has only grown in the half century since its implementation. The legislation came after a century of wildlife abuse.
By the late 1800s, market hunting, poaching, game hogs and the use of feathers for women’s fashion had brought many species to the brink of extinction:
- The more than 60 million bison that had dominated the Great Plains for thousands of years had been reduced to 541 in 1889.
- The passenger pigeon, more numerous than any other bird in the world, was reduced to extinction in 1914 from more than 3 billion birds.
- The pesticide DDT has decimated the symbol of our nation. reducing the number of bald eagles to a remnant of 417 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states by 1963.
- The largest North American land bird, the California condor, died out in the wild in 1987, and was reduced to 27 individuals sent to breeding grounds.
This large-scale loss of wildlife was the context for this new legislation that set out to list, protect and restore threatened and endangered species in the US.
And over the last five decades, the ESA has been remarkably successful in stabilizing populations of species at risk—preventing the type of large-scale extinctions that occurred in previous centuries and preserving the habitats on which these species depend. , and depend on the people they value.
Perhaps the poster child for this success is the American bald eagle. Nearly exterminated by hunting and poisons in the 20th century, it was finally removed from the endangered species list in 2007 when the population recovered sufficiently.
Closer to home, the Delmarva Peninsula fox hornet was highly endangered. Its habitat was returned to Maryland by the early 1900s, and finally to only four Eastern Shore counties by 1967. Over the next decade, the species was actively restored and relocated, and is being recovered and delisted. It can be found on most of the Eastern Shore, as well as in Virginia and Delaware.
But my favorite story is the black-footed ferret. Although North America’s only native ferret species used to number between 500,000 and 1 million, in 1979 the most likely last member of the species died in captivity.
It reminded me of the last passenger pigeon, Martha, who died alone in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
But this time there was a different ending.
A black-footed ferret was discovered in 1981 by a farmer’s dog near Meeteetse, Wyo., who launched the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Program. Today, more than 300 ferrets live in the wild spread over their former range, still threatened, but, fortunately, not extinct. The original rediscovered ferret is proudly displayed at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, W.Va.
If extinction is forever, then endangered means there is still time. We won’t always get a second chance like we did with the black-footed ferret. But thanks to this far-sighted legislation, we can at least hope that our children’s children in 50 years will enjoy the rich species diversity with which we are blessed.
Mark Madison teaches environmental history, environmental ethics, and environmental policy at Shepherd University.