The Endangered Species Act has been instrumental in saving animals such as black-footed ferrets, but extinction rates remain hundreds of times higher than they’ve been at most other points in the history of life on Earth.
Photograph By Kathryn Scott Osler / The Denver Post / Getty
In the summer of 1973, the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries approved a version of the Endangered Species Act and sent the bill to the floor of Congress. To accompany the measure, the committee—now defunct—produced a report that offered the following analogy. Imagine that a copy of every book in the world had been deposited in one enormous building. Now imagine that a madman was somehow able to enter the building, light a bonfire, and incinerate part of the collection. The response would be outrage. At the very least, the administrators of the building would be censured; probably they would be replaced.
“So it is with mankind,” the report observed. Like it or not, humans had become the administrators of the planet: “we are our brother’s keepers, and we are also keepers of the rest of the house.”
A few weeks after the report was issued, the House approved the bill by a vote of 390–12. The Senate approved its version 92–0. During the signing ceremony for the Endangered Species Act, President Richard Nixon said, “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.”
Forty-five years later, there is a madman in the building. In fact, there are several. Last week, the Trump Administration proposed what the Times called “the most sweeping set of changes in decades” to the regulations used to enforce the Act. The changes would weaken protections for endangered species, while making it easier for companies to build roads, pipelines, or mines in crucial habitats. Under current regulations, government agencies are supposed to make decisions about what species need safeguarding “without reference to possible economic or other impacts.” The Administration wants to scratch that phrase. It also wants to scale back protections for threatened species—these are one notch down on the endangerment scale—and to make it easier to delist species that have been classified as endangered.