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Should the Endangered Species Act be updated for climate change accounts?


The Endangered Species Act turns 50 today. It was born out of a growing realization in the Nixon era that America could lose its wildlife to, quote-unquote, "progress." I spoke with Deborah Sivas, a professor of environmental law at Stanford University. She talked about what the act was intended to do.

DEBORAH SIVAS: So the purpose of the ESA was to really triage species that were on the brink of extinction. And when it was adopted in the 1970s, there were plenty of species that were facing extinction. And the idea is to list them and give them additional protection with the hope that the populations will recover and they will eventually come off of the list. So I think of it as like an emergency room in a hospital where you bring the species into protection, you patch them up, you patch the populations up and then, you know, hopefully they go on and survive and thrive.

MARTÍNEZ: Sivas points out the ESA was signed before lawmakers were really aware of climate change. She says the law needs to be updated.

SIVAS: Over the years, especially in the last two to three decades, it's really been under constant assault, right? It changes when a different presidential administration comes in or a shift in Congress, and it's sort of in a constant battle to survive. And given how polarized we are, I question whether it can survive. But right now - you know, right now it's being protected by champions in the - both in the White House and in the Congress. But I think its future remains precarious.

MARTÍNEZ: If you could update one part of the Endangered Species Act, what would it be?

SIVAS: Well, as I mentioned, there's concerns about how it interacts with climate change. So - and you need to think carefully about how to do that. But to me, one of the things that is really needed is, we focus on species. And that was what was in the minds of Congress back in the 1970s. You know, there were certain species that were iconic, like the bald eagle and others. But really we need to focus on ecosystems and the habitat where the species lives. So there have been lots of proposals to think about how we could reform the ESA to really make it an ecosystem protection law, as opposed to just a species protection laws.

MARTÍNEZ: How would things change if it was indeed changed to ecosystems as opposed to just species?

SIVAS: Well, it would be more reflective of conservation biology, the science behind it, right? Which is - so often what we do now is we have a species that gets listed and they really provide a proxy for protection of a larger ecosystem. So the example I always give back in the 1990s is the northern spotted owl. And, yes - were people concerned about the owl? Yes. But really it was used as a proxy to protect old-growth forests in the Northwest, right? But that seems like it's not really the - scientifically correct. We should be looking at the whole ecosystem and what that ecosystem needs in terms of protection.

MARTÍNEZ: I know that there are a lot of names on the list. What is your favorite species that has been saved or helped by the ESA?

SIVAS: Here in California, one of the - my favorites is the condor. So we - I live not too far from Pinnacles National Park, which is a habitat for condor and, you know, have hiked up there, and there are these majestic birds. And they were also brought back in California from the brink of extinction through ESA-type protections.

MARTÍNEZ: Condor is a good one. I live in California too.

SIVAS: Oh, OK (laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: Condor is definitely a good one. Yeah, absolutely. This is just kind of a random question on my part. Of all the creatures on the list, if you could just talk to one, Deborah, which one would it be, and what would you want to know?

SIVAS: (Laughter) Well, I'm particularly fond of the gray wolves. And really, they've made a comeback in the West. We've - under the Endangered Species Act, they've been protected. They're now less protected than they were, but they were protected for many years and reintroduced into Yellowstone. And as - and if you live out West, you know that they've really radiated out from Yellowstone all the way into California, and they just roam all over the landscape, right? And - which is one of the reasons why they're in trouble, because they interact with humans, you know, everywhere they go. But I would love to be in their shoes.

MARTÍNEZ: Or their paws, I guess, right?

SIVAS: Or paws - or their paws, right?

MARTÍNEZ: In this case, right? Yeah.

SIVAS: (Laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: Deborah Sivas, professor of environmental law at Stanford Law School - Deborah, thank you very much.

SIVAS: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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