Monday, March 3, 2014

How To Become Un-endangered (Part 1 of 3)

by Lisa Barrett

While a senior at the University of Michigan, I experienced an extremely emotional moment during the National Anthem at the 2012 Michigan vs. Air Force football game. Though I had stood for countless anthem recitations there before (joined by over 110,000 other fans in the largest stadium in America), this time there was a surprise stadium flyover by a trained bald eagle that sparked a surprising reaction in me. As someone who lived through the near-extinction and then population resurgence of the United States’ national animal, seeing a real bald eagle soaring through the air was poignant and humbling (so much so that I was embarrassingly moved to tears). This unforgettable moment has prompted me to investigate why eagles and some other animals have bounced back from the brink, while other species, including Asian elephants, are still in danger of extinction.

A trained eagle soars over fans at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, MI, USA.
Photo from:

What does a bald eagle have in common with a gray wolf and a grizzly bear? All three species have experienced a sweeping loss in population number before undergoing a species-saving resurgence—largely due to negative human effects followed by human conservation efforts. What causes an endangered species on the IUCN Red list to become fully conserved and relisted on the Green List? And who decides which species are worth saving? Most importantly, how can endangered animal success stories teach us what conservation methods work best for endangered Asian elephants? These and related questions will be addressed in my three-part blog series on how to become un-endangered.

Part 1: The U.S. Endangered Species Act

All wildlife conservationists initially set out to achieve the same goal: to save and protect endangered species. This usually entails working with communities to protect habitats, enacting policies with government officials to change human behavior, and studying animal behavior to determine the best mode of helping that species. A conservation plan may also involve initiating education programs to encourage new ways of thinking and to disseminate research. In the case of the bald eagle, which was removed from the U.S. Endangered Species List in 2007, it was the enforcement of the 1972 ban on DDT pesticide that most significantly contributed to its survival. The gray wolf benefited from reintroduction programs and political collaboration between Canada and the United States. The grizzly bear bounced back after the ratification of the1973 Endangered Species Act and resulting ban on hunting. Although these solutions may seem simple, they required countless hours of research, education, and enforcement to eventually spark increases in population numbers.

Grizzly bears benefited from a ban on hunting. 
Photo from: Wikimedia Commons

We can learn much about wildlife conservation strategies by studying successful U.S. case studies, especially those made possible by enforcement of legislation. For example, the Endangered Species Act (ESA), administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has been credited for the increase in population size and subsequent removal from the Endangered Species List of several animal species such as the bald eagle, whooping crane, grizzly bear, and the northern flying squirrel. The ESA requires that the federal government take a number of measures to protect any imperiled animals, especially those that are likely to become extinct throughout a large portion of their habitat, those that may become endangered, and the habitats vital to these animals. Under the ESA, these animals are protected from being trafficked, hunted, harmed, or experiencing any impediments to their normal breeding behaviors. At its root, the act aims to protect entire food chains and ecosystems by focusing on species in danger of complete extinction.

The ESA still has its downfalls, however, with some critics claiming that over a dozen listed species were never endangered in the first place, thus removing some credibility from the ESA. Others may argue that the success rate of the ESA is so small in the nearly three decades since its installment that sweeping reform is required. Perhaps most troubling, by listing a species as endangered, the ESA may inadvertently cause landowners within ranges of the listed species to destroy their habitat in order to keep their land. For example, landowners may degrade potential animal habitat on their property in order to prevent regulations being imposed on them, since it is not illegal to destroy land that might become part of a species’ habitat. Additionally, private landowners are not required to take any action in ensuring species conservation besides simply not engaging in harming the species. Unsurprisingly, political means of bringing about population increase of threatened species may have unintended consequences.

Map of endangered species throughout the United States. 
Photo from: 

Thanks to the Endangered Species Act and its subsequent amendments, the gray wolf, which was once poisoned and hunted to near-extinction, has seen a steady population rise. But it wasn’t just the creation of this new Act that saved this national symbol—it was a powerful combination of public education, habitat restoration, wolf reintroduction programming, and compensation for ranchers who lost livestock to wolves that brought back the gray wolf. Today there are about 2,500 wolves in Minnesota, 500 wolves in Michigan and Wisconsin, and 500 across the western states. But some species have had more trouble than the select success stories announced by the ESA. And what about the 5,000 other endangered species in the world?

In the next part of this blog series, we will examine why some animals, like charismatic giant pandas, get more support from conservation groups than others, and whether this selection process is justified.

To find out which endangered species live in your state, click here:


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