40 Years of Success Protecting Endangered Species & Other Wildlife in Our Backyards

2013 is the 40th anniversary of two important moments in wildlife conservation history.  In 1973, Congress enacted and President Nixon signed into law the Endangered Species Act.  The ESA has become the nation’s most important wildlife conservation law, helping rescue from extinction the American bald eagle, the Florida panther, and hundreds of other at-risk species.  It also has unleashed countless wildlife and habitat restoration projects across the country and served as the model and inspiration for endangered species laws and programs around the globe.

A whooping crane plucks a blue crab from the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Photo by David Sager, an entrant in the National Wildlife Photo Contest.
The endangered whooping crane, one of the many beneficiaries of the Endangered Species Act. Photo by David Sager, an entrant in the National Wildlife Photo Contest.
NWF has been a major supporter of this “safety net for wildlife” since its inception, helping to shape the legislation and the implementing regulations, helping to secure needed funding, and defending the law against the efforts by special interests to weaken it.  We also have participated in numerous on-the-ground efforts to restore endangered species, such as the historic reintroduction of the gray wolf into the Yellowstone and central Idaho ecosystems and the restoration of thousands of acres of habitat for the whooping crane along the Platte River.

1973 was also the year that the National Wildlife Federation launched its Certified Wildlife Habitat  program, in which homeowners, business owners, parks agencies and others voluntarily commit to providing the habitat elements needed by native wildlife in their communities. Today, over 160,000 properties are enrolled in the program.  Perhaps most importantly, many local officials today are using Certified Wildlife Habitat as a vehicle to organize community-based wildlife conservation efforts.  Soon we will have secured participation from 175 certified communities, representing 10 million residents, committing to restoring and maintaining wildlife habitat in their communities.

For Endangered Species, Habitat is the Key

Cuyahoga River fire, 1952 - Jefferson St. and W. 3rd. Photo by James Thomas, courtesy of Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library.
Cuyahoga River fire, 1952 – Jefferson St. and W. 3rd. Photo by James Thomas, courtesy of Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library.
What do these two programs have in common besides their anniversary?  On the surface, seemingly little: the federal endangered species program is a massively complex legal framework and the Certified Wildlife Habitat program is a small and simple volunteer program. However, in the course of their 40-year histories, both programs have helped to demonstrate the great things that can be accomplished for wildlife in urban and suburban spaces.

The importance of urban wildlife restoration was not a subject of national debate in 1973.  The American people were focused on declining environmental quality, but when it came to the cities, the big topic was the sorry state of the air and water and the inadequate regulation of industrial pollution. When the Cuyahoga River again caught fire just outside of Cleveland in 1969, the national outrage boiled over and spurred an avalanche of pollution control initiatives, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Michigan Rep. John Dingell, a key leader in passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, was sworn into Congress in 1955.
In contrast, much of the national conversation about wildlife in that era was focused on areas outside of the cities.  For example, when wildlife champion Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) went to the floor of the House of Representatives in January 1973 to speak in support a new Endangered Species Act, he cited six species that live (or once lived) in the wide open spaces: the timber wolf, the red wolf, the wolverine, the kangaroo, the Asian elephant, and the eastern cougar.  Like most of his contemporaries, he was rarely if ever heard discussing the plight of endangered wildlife in and around the places where most people live.

Fortunately, the authors of the ESA were sufficiently visionary to offer protections to any plant or animal species threatened with extinction, regardless of where it might reside (although in the U.S., plants and invertebrate animal species would get significantly less protection than vertebrate animal species, and species outside of the U.S. would get far less attention).  Beginning in 1973, for the first time ever, developers and local governments in the U.S. cities and suburbs were required to think seriously about the implications of their proposed actions on endangered wildlife.

Innovative Protections for Threatened Plants and Animals

This endangered Mission Blue Butterfly was found on Milagra Ridge near Pacifica, California. Photo by Kirke Wrench, entrant in the National Wildlife Photo Contest.
The endangered Mission Blue Butterfly was the focus of conservation planning by San Mateo County, California, thanks to the Endangered Species Act. Photo by Kirke Wrench, entrant in the National Wildlife Photo Contest.
One of the key innovations that would drive urban and suburban wildlife conservation was the habitat conservation plan (HCP) under Section 10 of the ESA. The first HCP was crafted in the early 1980s by developers and local officials in San Mateo County, California, just south of San Francisco. Seeking to build subdivisions in the habitat of listed butterfly species, the developers recognized that winning approval of their plans from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would require habitat acquisitions and restoration measures to offset the harmful impact. The result of their efforts was the San Bruno Mountain Habitat Conservation Plan, operated to this day by the San Mateo Parks Department and funded by developer fees.  In its 1982 update to the ESA, Congress cited this plan as basis for the new Section 10 “incidental take” permitting and HCP provisions.

Implementation of Section 10 has not been without controversy. I represented NWF and other conservation groups in the late 1990s and early 2000s challenging some implementation decisions in the courtroom and as an advocate before the Clinton Administration to help ensure that an appropriate balance is struck between the needs of developers and those of wildlife.

Where do Urban and Suburban Habitats Come In?

The golden cheeked warbler is a protected species under the Endangered Species Act. Photo by Gail Buquoi, an entrant in the National Wildlife Photo Contest.
The golden cheeked warbler, protected by the Endangered Species Act, was the focus of large-scale conservation efforts in Austin, Texas. Photo by Gail Buquoi, an entrant in the National Wildlife Photo Contest.
Today, 40 years after the passage of the Endangered Species Act, dozens of large-scale habitat conservation plans, and hundreds of single-parcel HCPs, have been approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service.  The large-scale HCPs are the most noteworthy because most have substantial involvement with local governmental entities charged with land use. Metropolitan areas ranging from Austin, Texas, to Pima County, Arizona, to San Diego, Orange, Contra Costa and Placer counties in California now have large-scale efforts underway to restore urban and suburban wildlife thanks to the ESA. Cities in the Pacific Northwest have become leaders in watershed protection and restoration thanks in part to the addition of salmon to the threatened and endangered species list in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, many urban and suburban leaders in places without ESA listings are also pioneering new approaches to wildlife restoration, while helping reconnect people to the nature in their communities. The core idea of the Community Wildlife Habitat certification—that city leaders will harness community pride and volunteer spirit with just a simple recognition and thank you from a national conservation organization—is spurring exciting wildlife restoration efforts in big cities such as Baltimore and small suburbs such as Davie, Florida, an ethically diverse town just outside of Fort Lauderdale with 96,000 residents.

Studies on how best to conserve biodiversity in urban yards and parks are in their relative infancy.  One recent study of the Certified Wildlife Habitat program found that participants were providing significantly greater habitat for native wildlife than non-participants. However, to date, no one has studied how best to organize efforts at a landscape scale to ensure that measurable benefits to targeted species are achieved. NWF has begun reaching out to partners such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the U.S. Geological Survey to address this challenge for the Community Wildlife Habitat program.

In the meantime, groups such as Monarch Watch, initially focused on using citizens to gather scientific data on the Monarch Butterfly, are shifting to a more active approach, challenging their members and supporters to carry out the restoration actions needed to address threats to long-term survival. Thanks to the internet, the typical urban dweller now has a wealth of information on how to make a difference, both on the science and on the groups who are working on the ground to make a difference.

Residents restoring native plants in Davie, Florida.
Residents restoring native plants in Davie, Florida. Davie was recently certified by National Wildlife Federation as a Community Wildlife Habitat.
Many people I know feel daunted by reports of species decline and extinction. Virtually every day they hear some frightening new statistic on the enormity of the biodiversity crisis.  Just a few days ago, a study in the journal Nature Climate Change revealed that almost two thirds of common plants and half the common animals could see a dramatic decline this century due to climate change.

Although it may be tempting to conclude that there is little that can be done given the vastness of the threats facing wildlife, the past 40 years of experience with the ESA and CWH suggests otherwise. These programs show that with a strong Endangered Species Act and other conservation laws, complemented by strong voluntary restoration programs, substantial progress on wildlife conservation can be made in the very communities where we live.

Editor’s note: This essay was also published at the Nature of Cities blog.