I saw an eagle on Sunday, high above the Mississippi in St. Paul, swooping and soaring over the river under a bright blue sky.
When I was in junior high school, back in the early 1960s, bald eagles were an endangered species. Growing up on a farm near Litchfield, I saw kingfishers and orioles, mourning doves and meadowlarks, but never a bald eagle. Back then, only 487 nesting pairs of bald eagles still lived in the lower 48 states. They were on the path to extinction, my teachers told us, like passenger pigeons, which were extinct before I was born.
The biggest birds I saw back then were Canadian geese migrating in their V formations, spring and fall. Today, as I drive west on Highway 12, I see swans, pelicans, herons, and egrets floating in prairie potholes or flying overhead. Flocks of wild turkeys congregate in country fields and even in my city neighborhood.
Success stories of Endangered Species Act
Today, eagles soar over rivers and highways and cornfields. They, like wild turkeys and timber wolves, are success stories of conservation efforts like the Endangered Species Act, first passed back in 1966 as my teachers told us about the coming extinction of eagles.
The Endangered Species Preservation Act was expanded in 1969 and replaced by the current Endangered Species Act in 1973. The 1973 Endangered Species Act passed the Senate without a single dissenting vote, and the House by a vote of 390-12. Along with its powerful protection, other environmental legislation, like the federal ban on DDT, was also crucial for eagles. DDT poisoned not only insects and other birds, but also fish and the eagles that ate them.
Now the Trump administration is gutting the Endangered Species Act, along with other environmental protections. The administration has announced new regulations making it easier to remove species from the endangered list and weakening protections for both endangered and “threatened” species, a status one step below “endangered.” Instead of protecting wild creatures and their habitat, these new rules prioritize profits. They mandate a cost/benefit analysis as more important than evaluation of threats to habitat and survival of species.
What is the economic value of eagles? What price do we put on monarch butterflies or wild turkeys, on forests and prairies, on lakes and streams?
Just the most recent move against conservation
This month’s attack on the Endangered Species Act is just the most recent Trump administration move against conservation. A year ago, it gutted protection under the 100-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty. Besides direct attacks on birds and other wildlife, Trump environmental policies have weakened clean water protection, opened national monuments to mining and drilling, increased logging on public lands, slashed environmental enforcement, and, of course, rejected climate science and action on climate change.
Worldwide, more than a million species face extinction, according to a U.N. report on biodiversity, a threat and rate of extinction “unprecedented” in human history. The report, three years in preparation, was compiled by 145 experts from 50 countries, with additional contributions from more than 300 contributing authors.
“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said professor Joseph Settele of Germany, one of the co-chairs of the project. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”
About 14,000 pairs of bald eagles and more than 6 million wild turkeys across the country attest to our ability to protect species. Now is the time to strengthen environmental protection, not to end it.
Mary Turck grew up on a farm in central Minnesota, and now lives in St. Paul. She is a poet, writer, and editor.
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