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Wrong move to ‘modernize’ the Endangered Species Act

FILE - In this July 25, 2005, file

FILE - In this July 25, 2005, file photo, tiny fish, including delta smelt, caught in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, are seen through a microscope at a California Department of Fish and Game laboratory in Stockton, Calif. In control of Congress and soon the White House, Republicans are readying plans to roll back the influence of the Endangered Species Act, one of the government's most powerful conservation tools, after decades of complaints that it hinders drilling, logging and other activities. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File) Credit: AP

Modernize is a lovely word, so dynamic in its optimism and progressiveness.

But in alt-reality Washington, the word is now a euphemism for weaken or undermine. The occasion was a Senate hearing last week to “modernize the Endangered Species Act.” The law has been a seminal part of the nation’s environmental protection efforts. But Republicans focused on how it sometimes has blocked oil drilling, mining, logging, farming and ranching, and infringed on states’ rights and those of private landowners.

So “modernize” means changing the law to focus less on species extinction and more on business promotion. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) wants to repeal the act, with the blatantly false justification that it is used only to control land, not rehabilitate species.

The law, in fact, has been spectacularly successful. It was passed nearly unanimously in 1973 by a Congress that was unnerved, like many Americans, by the possible extinction of the bald eagle, the symbol of our nation. By 2007, the bird was removed from the list of threatened and endangered plants and animals. Other success stories are the American alligator, Stellar sea lion, peregrine falcon, whooping crane and California condor.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says 99 percent of listed species have been saved from extinction; only 10 have been declared extinct. In public polls, support for the law has topped out at 90 percent. And it’s important to note that the primary responsibility for protecting species lies with states; the Endangered Species Act is used only when they are deemed to have failed at that job.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), chairman of the committee that held last week’s hearing, complained that only 47 of more than 1,600 listed species have been removed because they have recovered. We live in a results-now world, true, but species-saving doesn’t work that way (witness the bald eagle). The decades of decline that warrant listing a species take decades to reverse — especially since some of the causes, like loss of habitat and climate change, continue to worsen.

Can the law be improved? Of course. Some species stay on the list even though biologists working for the federal government itself say they have recovered. Some Democrats as well as Republicans are frustrated by the continued protection of wolves, for example. But the law is flexible and allows improvements. That happens regularly. One recent change gave landowners more input in plans to conserve habitat.

Republicans have attacked the law for years, trying to make listing species more difficult or environmental lawsuits harder. Some proposed changes are just silly, like Sen. James Inhofe’s idea that for every species added to the list one must be removed. Extinction isn’t a swap meet.

But it is real. The Center for Biological Diversity says Earth is undergoing its worst mass extinction of plants and animals since dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. Dozens of species disappear every day. Biodiversity loss is critical. Messing with one component can throw off an ecosystem. That can harm humans, too. Bees pollinate dozens of American crops, but some species are dwindling. The rusty patched bumblebee has lost 90 percent of its range, but the Trump administration suspended the endangered designation the bee received from the Obama administration in January. Is it a temporary move for the sake of analysis, or a final decision?

The conflict between industry and nature, between cutting red tape and preserving species, isn’t always an either-or. It’s dishonest to pretend that it is.

But when it is, if the choice is more oil and coal mining at a time of global warming vs. preserving biodiversity and the food supply, I’m with the bees.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

An earlier version of this column incorrectly spelled the last names of Sens. John Barrasso and Jim Inhofe.