Endangered Species Act turns 40 years old — and faces midlife crisis

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor

Four decades after going into effect, the legislation that protects some of Mother Nature's most vulnerable creatures is facing an existential crisis.

Since the Endangered Species Act became law, it's generated its share of success stories (such as the bald eagle's resurgence) and less impressive case studies (such as the continuing decline of the Northern spotted owl). This year's anniversary is generating a lot of talk about the Endangered Species Act's past — and its future.

"There are a lot of pundits out there who will tell you that it has either been a disaster or a huge success," Peter Alagona, a professor of environmental history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, told Smithsonian magazine. "The truth is that it has really been a mixed bag to date, and 'to date' is a really short time. For species that took centuries to decline, 40 years is probably not enough time to recover."

Alagona takes an in-depth look at species protection in a book titled "After the Grizzly," and says the law has done "a really good job" of preventing extinctions. "But it's done a really poor job promoting the recovery of species that are on the list," he said.

What works, what doesn't
The problem is that bringing an endangered species back to a sustainable population often requires more than just restricting human activities in a defined geographical area. Sometimes the solution springs from other factors: The growth of bald eagle populations, for instance, arguably had more to do with the 1972 ban on DDT's agricultural use than with the Endangered Species Act. Even though the eagles were taken off the endangered list in 2007, they're still protected under different laws.

The law's protections aren't always enough to address the bigger problems facing a species and its habitat. Take the Northern spotted owl: Limits on logging in the threatened species' Pacific Northwest forest habitat generated a huge outcry in the 1990s, but even though the protections took effect, the spotted owl population is continuing to decline — mostly due to encroachment by a more aggressive species, the barred owl.

"The conservationists who got into this in the first place got into it because they wanted to save owls, and now they’re being faced with the idea of shooting one owl to protect another," Alagona said.

Politics and science
Even though the status of endangered species is supposed to be determined purely on scientific grounds, politics enters into the picture. Such is the case for the gray wolf, which has recovered enough that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed taking the species off the endangered list. Some environmentalists worry that the move is premature — and have accused the federal government of stacking the deck during its peer-review process. A decision on delisting gray wolves is expected next year.

Then there's climate change: In the decades ahead, species and their habitats could face rapid shifts due to rising sea levels, warmer temperatures and other effects associated with greenhouse-gas emissions.

One of the potential casualties is the endangered red wolf, which is limited to a low-lying coastal habitat on North Carolina's Albemarle Peninsula. Up to a third of that habitat could disappear over the next century, due to land subsidence and sea encroachment. Rising sea levels pose a similar threat to other species, such as the Florida panther, the Key deer and the Atlantic piping plover.

Could the Endangered Species Act be invoked to shut down CO2-emitting coal plants? "You could make that legal argument, but the political reaction would be very intense," Dave Owen, a law professor at the University of Maine, told Outside Online.

Speaking of legal arguments and political reaction, the Fish and Wildlife Service accelerated the pace of its process for protecting species two years ago after a pair of legal settlements — and that has sparked a new round of congressional scrutiny for the Endangered Species Act. House Republicans say the law "has become a tool for litigation that drains resources away from real recovery efforts and blocks job-creating economic activities."

After 40 years, is it high time for an overhaul? Does the act need to be reworked to cover emerging environmental threats, or to reflect economic realities? Either way, feel free to weigh in with your comments.

More about the Endangered Species Act:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.