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As the Endangered Species Act turns 50, conservationists consider its successes, limitations

New England Aquarium

Next week marks 50 years of the Endangered Species Act. The bedrock environmental law is credited with saving 291 species from extinction, 99% of those listed as endangered or threatened. CAI’s Eve Zuckoff talked about it with Sarah Reiter, a lawyer and the associate vice president of Ocean Conservation Practice at the New England Aquarium.

Eve Zuckoff: So how does the Endangered Species Act actually function today? Let's do the 101 first.

Sarah Reiter: Sure. So the law allows for individuals or organizations to petition to have a species listed as either endangered or threatened. So once a species is protected, the law, barring some exceptions, prohibits behavior that would further endanger the species, such as importing, exporting, possessing, selling or transporting that species. And the other thing that it does that's really crucial and important is that the law, once a species is protected, also prohibits the destruction of that species important or critical habitat.

Eve Zuckoff: What happened in 1973 that actually brought this law to life?

Sarah Reiter: So on December 28th, 1973, the environmental movement was gaining traction across the country, and Congress passed the Endangered Species Act with bipartisan support. So it was one of several laws that we saw in the 1970s that are considered this package of bedrock environmental laws that kicked off the environmental movement in the United States. And it became this really important law to protect animals and plants that are in danger of extinction and to safeguard their habitats.

Eve Zuckoff: Right. The Endangered Species Act is credited with rescuing the bald eagle, the grizzly bear, the American alligator. Walk me through some of the local successes.

Sarah Reiter: So I think endangered sea turtles provide a really good example of the importance of the Endangered Species Act at a local level. For us, one of the things that we're seeing with sea turtles is that every spring and summer, the species of sea turtles that are endangered, they follow warm water currents of the Gulf Stream north and some end up in Massachusetts waters. Then as fall approaches, many of the sea turtles migrate back to warmer waters in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. But some of these sea turtles get stranded in places like the Cape, and organizations like New England Aquarium really work to rescue, rehabilitate and then release these turtles back into the water. And what we're seeing with certain populations is that those populations are beginning to improve along their whole migration path.

Eve Zuckoff: Now, this law, the Endangered Species Act, has been challenged for being too overreaching. The Trump administration moved to roll back the scope of how how it works over concerns that it burdens landowners. It hampers industry and economic growth. What do you make that argument?

Sarah Reiter: That's a really great question. I think that the law helps us grapple with a core value conflict that's embedded within American culture and our nation's values related to economic prosperity and growth alongside our values related to natural resources, healthy ecosystems and species that are of historical and cultural significance. So while some may see the Endangered Species Act as overly burdensome or putting up roadblocks and barriers to what we would consider that prosperity and growth, the science has taught us that it's really essential for us to protect this biodiversity that we find through the species, some of which are at risk and endangered.

Eve Zuckoff: You mentioned warming waters earlier. In a future of climate change, we know that more animals will struggle to deal with a hotter planet and its effects on habitat, prey, and disease. Does the law go far enough for what's ahead?

Sarah Reiter:  So because the law was designed before we really had a handle on climate change and the impacts that it would have, it remains to be seen how just how jurisprudence will be able to grapple with, for example, designating critical habitat that might be outside the current range of a species for the conservation of that species. So we're we're still watching to see what the next decades will bring with this law.

Eve Zuckoff: Sarah Reiter, thank you for joining us.

Sarah Reiter: Thank you so much.

This interview was lightly edited for time and clarity.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.