Confronting America’s Wildlife Catastrophe

US environmental policy faces a sobering reality: The United States has enacted and implemented some of the world’s most effective conservation laws, but US wildlife populations are still dangerously declining. One in five animal and plant species in the United States — nearly 1,300 species in all — is in danger of extinction. Among mammals, more than two-thirds of all endangered species in the United States, from the wolverine to the polar bear, are declining.

The decline of America’s fauna is consistent with what experts call a global “sixth mass extinction,” with species disappearing at a rate 100 times to 1,000 times greater than before humans were present. Scientists have documented 899 extinctions in modern human history, but recognize that tens of thousands of lesser-known or undiscovered species likely perished without registration.

Human causes — such as deforestation, climate change, urbanization, habitat fragmentation, pollution, overhunting and overfishing, and the global transport of invasive species and diseases — have accelerated the rate of extinction over the past two centuries. Wildlife population studies show that more than 22,000 species are now endangered worldwide. “Every year thousands of plant and animal species disappear that we will never know, that our children will never see, because they are lost forever,” wrote Pope Francis in “Laudato Si,” his encyclical on the environment. “The vast majority are dying out for reasons related to human activity.”

For American species nearing extinction, the Endangered Species Act, or ESA, is the steel guardrail between them and oblivion. Less than 1 percent of species protected by the ESA are recorded as later extinct. Without the ESA, scientists estimate that at least 227 additional American animal species would have gone extinct since 1973.

The ESA has been an undeniable success in preventing the extinction of American plants and animals, but because it targets species already in grave danger, it alone cannot halt and reverse the widespread decline of American fauna. The unprecedented scale of the wildlife crisis in the United States requires policymakers to develop new tools and strategies to halt the decline of species before they become endangered and need ESA protection.

This report proposes the creation of a new category for the designation of wild animals:at risk— that would apply to species in decline but not yet in or deserving of protection as an endangered or threatened species under the ESA. Designating a plant or animal as endangered would allow federal, state and local leaders to better coordinate existing conservation programs, incentives and investments to encourage voluntary efforts to protect and restore species. Federal and state policymakers should also work to increase the availability of funding and resources for the conservation of endangered species and their habitats. These investments and a clearer focus on early, voluntary conservation of rare and declining species would reduce the likelihood of them needing the ESA’s mandatory legal protection.

Matt Lee-Ashley is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. Nicole Gentile is the director of campaigns at the Public Lands project downtown.

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