It has become clear to environmentalists that the Endangered Species Act is failing in its fundamental job: rehabilitating species near the brink of extinction
The Endangered Species Act Needs an Overhaul—fast
the guam broadbill, a small, iridescent black flycatcher with a brown chest and a fluffy head, once flourished in the secluded limestone ravines on the Pacific island of Guam, a territory that belongs to the United States. By 1973, development had destroyed two-thirds of its habitat and introduced a snake that preyed on the bird’s young.
That same year, President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) into law. The act, which sets restrictions on the destruction of specific animal species and their habitat, seemed purpose-built for Guam’s broadbill. But conservation rarely moves at the speed of destruction. It took Guam’s governor six years to petition to have the bird protected. Studies took another five. By the time the broadbill made the endangered species list, in the summer of 1984, it was nearly gone—the last sighting occurred a few weeks later, on a golf course.
The ESA is widely credited with preventing the extinction of 99 percent of the species placed on its protected list. But as the plight of the poor broadbill suggests, this number doesn’t tell the whole story. More than half of the species the act purportedly protects are now in trouble. Between 1990 and 2010, just 8 percent of species improved their well-being, while 52 percent declined. A massive backlog of animals—many of them, like the broadbill, facing loss of habitat or assaults from invasive species—are also waiting to get on the list, but their cases are mired in the courts or red tape.
It’s become increasingly clear that the act’s onespecies-at-a-time method of conservation is too slow and cumbersome to deal with relatively recent threats like climate change and invasive species, which can throw entire ecosystems into turmoil. And even though the act is hugely popular—its favorable rating