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Commentary: Endangered Species Act

By Christopher Hollister

Buffalo, NY – Recently, I completed an exhibit for the University at Buffalo Libraries that commemorates the 30-year anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. The exhibit involved some six months of research, and the experience, which began as a labor of love, has left me with profound feelings of anger, dismay, and sadness.

Before undertaking this project, I was aware of the Bush administration's abysmal record on environmental matters. However, I was unprepared perhaps naively so for what my research would uncover: the extent to which this administration will go to weaken endangered species legislation; the corporate greed that drives its politics and its policies, the disregard it has for sound, peer-reviewed science, and the magnitude of environmental destruction it is capable of.

President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law on December 28, 1973. This was a bipartisan congressional effort that passed 355-4 in the House and 92-0 in the Senate. Also known as Public Law 93-205, the Act provides protection against pollution, dwindling habitat, and other dangers that have forced thousands of species to the brink of extinction. And though the law has had its share of controversy over the years, until George W. Bush came along, no administration has so brazenly defied it.

The Bush administration's assault commenced during their very first week in office, when they froze all pending Endangered Species Act regulations, halted the listing of any new species for protection, and blocked all designations of critical habitat for species already listed under the Act. Next, the administration appointed former special interest industry lobbyists to its highest-ranking environmental positions. And with these allies in place, the Bush administration has sabotaged the Act by rolling back the laws on logging and pesticide use, and by providing wildlife protection exemptions for the military. It has even proposed relaxing laws on the international trade of endangered species.

The Bush administration is the first not to voluntarily list any species under the Endangered Species Act. To date, there have been 25 listings under this administration an average of 8 per year and all by court order. By contrast, the Clinton administration listed an average of 65 species per year, and the first Bush administration listed an average of 58 species per year. And today, there are 256 so-called "candidate species" clinging to survival, on the precipice of extinction, awaiting protection under an administration that clearly does not care.

In a recent, nationwide survey, 65% of the respondents indicated that humans have a moral obligation to protect plant and animal life, 78% supported a strong Endangered Species Act, and 63% said that species protection should be a priority even in difficult economic times. Still, little is being done to stop the rampant destruction of the environment, and the laws in place to protect it.

Discussing this matter with my mother last week, I asked her why is it that people cannot see what is happening under the Bush administration. It's because, she replied starkly, people don't care. This was deeply disturbing for me to hear from my own mother one of the wisest, and most thoughtful people I have ever known and it has prompted me to ask an important question.

We are currently entering a time that preeminent scientists like Richard Leakey and Edward Wilson refer to as the sixth great extinction of species on Earth. Importantly, this is the first mass extinction directly caused by human activity. It is estimated that a staggering 50% of all species on the planet may vanish within the next 100 years. My question for you, my fellow citizens, is this Do you care?