UPDATE: On Thursday, July 19th, the Interior Department proposed a sweeping set of revisions to the Endangered Species Act. The changes would make the legislation more business-friendly, and make approval for roads, pipelines and other construction projects easier.  Currently, economic factors are prohibited from being considered when deciding whether or not a species should be protected. That longstanding policy would change under the proposal. 

When Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act on December 28, 1973, it made the United States the only nation on Earth to declare a basic right of existence for species other than our own. Currently, the law protects more than 1,600 species across the country.

There have been some very close calls since the law was passed. The California condor, the black-footed ferret, and, of course, the whooping crane were all in real trouble. Each got down to fewer than 25 left on the planet, but were saved from the brink of extinction thanks to protection by the federal government.

Now Republicans in Congress are considering several bills they say would “modernize” the Endangered Species Act to make it more business-friendly and prevent the public from suing the federal government to protect species. Some Democrats and conservationists say bills like this would diminish the law’s ability to protect wildlife from extinction.

On the latest episode of our podcast, Trump on Earth, we talk about the future of the Endangered Species Act with Jennifer Kahn. She wrote an article published in The New York Times magazine earlier this year titled, Should Some Species be Allowed to Die Out?

Kahn says that she was surprised by what her reporting revealed about the overall success of the law in actually saving endangered species.

“When I read some of statistics, I was actually kind of horrified. Proponents like to say, of all the species listed since 1973, 99% of them are still around, which sounds like an enormous victory. We haven’t lost species to extinction. And that’s true. The flipside is that only 1% of the species that have been added to the list have been sufficiently rehabilitated that they can be taken off it…that they’re not actually endangered anymore. So then we end up in this life support situation where these species end up being “conservation-reliant.” They still need a bunch of help.”

Kahn says the talk in Washington, isn’t about conservation, or how to most effectively save the species that matter. It’s about business interests.

“Most of the bills that are currently being debated, they’re really not about trying to make the Endangered Species Act more sensible. It’s much more about how can we log stuff, how can we build stuff, can we weaken the scientific criteria, can we make it harder to list things — all that.”

Kahn says that leading up to the passage of the Endangered Species Act, there was a feeling of genuine, pressing bipartisan concern. And the law was crafted to be ironclad and uniquely powerful.

“I think people, at the time, were extremely aware that business interests didn’t have species interests at heart. That was actually a deliberate thing to have a law without loopholes that businesses could use to say, ‘This is why we shouldn’t set aside this tract of land; this is why we can’t bother to save the species; or, we need a cost accounting of how much it costs to save a species, and if it costs too much we don’t have to do it.’

And I think the conservation community rightly feels like it has to be defended so strongly because if you give any ground, it’s just going to go away. And so it makes it hard to have a nuanced discussion about it. “

>>LISTEN to the entire episode to hear more about how the Endangered Species Act could change under the Trump administration as well as Kahn’s reporting on the extreme efforts to protect a small Hawaiian forest bird.

>>READ Jennifer Kahn’s article from the New York Times Magazine

>>LEARN about the Endangered Species Act

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This episode was hosted by Julie Grant and produced by Andy Kubis. Trump on Earth is produced by The Allegheny Front, a Pittsburgh-based environmental reporting project.

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