The Endangered Species Act is Needed Now More Than Ever

Bald Eagle pair, Colewort Marsh, along the Netul River, Lewis and Clark National Park, northwestern Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Humans tend to see the world with mankind as the most important species on the planet.

That concept has been reinforced through any number of ancient myths, particularly one that claims humans “have dominion over” all creation.

But of course the actual “web of life” has many, many more strands than the rather newcomers of the human race. The great wisdom of the Endangered Species Act, now 50 years old, is to consider and maintain all the strands.

We have, and continue to, extirpate plants and animals for a huge variety of reasons. In the past, those reasons mostly concentrated on fulfilling the basic necessities of life as perceived at the time.

We hunted and fished for meat and hides, killed dangerous predators from fear and self-preservation, destroyed entire ecosystems to replace them with the plants and animals we desired.

Now, however, the destruction caused by the human race has gone far beyond the practices of the past. Now, we don’t extirpate entire species for our immediate needs, we extirpate them with the vast amounts of pollution we produce to fulfill desires that go far beyond our basic needs

And that’s where the Endangered Species Act comes into play because it challenges us to consider what reasons are actually important enough to threaten, endanger and extirpate our fellow inhabitants on the planet we call home.

While Montana still has virtually all of the native species that were present when the Lewis and Clark Expedition traveled through 200 years ago, many are increasingly hanging on by an ever-thinner thread.

The fluvial Arctic grayling that once populated the entire Upper Missouri drainage has now been reduced to a mere handful, struggling with chronic irrigation dewatering and ever-warmer temperatures in their shrinking redoubt of the Upper Big Hole River. But less than 300 exist and they may not make it through another summer of low flows. Yet, due to resistance by myopic politicians, these beautiful native fish have been precluded from the protections and recovery of the Endangered Species Act.

Or how about the Glacial Stone Flies that rely on and are only found in the highest, coldest drainages of Glacier National Park whose chances of survival look grim as those glaciers disappear at an astounding rate.

Then there are wolverines, the newest addition to the Endangered Species List. What possible reason could humans have for continuing to trap and kill wolverines? We surely don’t eat them and the concept of trapping and killing species on the brink of extinction merely for their fur should be left in the dustbin of history.

Now saved from trapping, the greatest challenge for wolverines — and the rest of us — is the climate crises ravaging the planet. Wolverines need deep snow in which to build their dens, store food and raise their kits. And as is all too evident, humans have utterly failed to heed the decades old warnings from scientists that our atmospheric pollution is out of control and the impacts are stacking up faster than ever.

The examples are legion — in the forests, mountains, rivers and oceans species are disappearing as what has been called “the Sixth Great Extinction Event” continues at an accelerating pace.

In the end, it comes down to the “web of life.”

Our arrogant and ignorant politicians falsely believe humanity can continue to survive without all the other strands.

But it’s increasingly clear that as go the endangered species, sooner rather than later, so, too, go we — which is why the Endangered Species Act is more important and necessary now than ever.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.