Biologist Ashley Wilson, an expert in her field, found herself in Sharon Township, Michigan, carefully attending to a bat that had become tangled in netting above a picturesque river.
As she examined the small, furry mammal in the glow of her headlamp, she couldn’t help but feel a tinge of disappointment. “Another big brown,” she sighed.
The big brown bat was a common species, one of many that Wilson and her colleagues had captured during their nocturnal expeditions in the southern Michigan countryside.
However, their true objective was to locate the increasingly rare Indiana and northern long-eared bats. These bats had historically migrated to this area during the birthing season, seeking refuge behind the peeling bark of dead trees.
With their netting mission underway, the team of scientists had yet to spot either of the desired species this year. Despite their efforts, the presence of these bats remained elusive, leaving them concerned for the future of these endangered creatures.
“It is a misguided suggestion to not capture a bat, as it not only presents a negative image but also poses a threat to the conservation of these species,” expressed Allen Kurta, a highly experienced professor at Eastern Michigan University, specializing in bat research for over four decades.
These two types of bats have been officially recognized as imperiled under the Endangered Species Act, a fundamental legislation in the United States aimed at preventing the extinction of various animal and plant species.
Originally implemented in 1973 due to concerns regarding iconic creatures like the bald eagle, grizzly bear, and gray wolf, this law provides legal protection to an astounding 1,683 indigenous species.
Remarkably, over 99% of the species listed as “endangered,” on the brink of extinction, or the less critical category of “threatened,” have managed to persist.
“The success of the Endangered Species Act is undeniable,” declared Interior Secretary Deb Haaland during an interview with the Associated Press.
“I firmly believe that we have made significant progress thanks to this legislation, resulting in an improved state of affairs for the preservation of biodiversity.”
Fifty years have passed since the law was put into effect, and it continues to be deemed essential by environmental advocates and scientists.
The alarming rates of habitat loss, pollution, climate change, and disease have put approximately 1 million species at risk worldwide.
However, despite its significance, the law has become a subject of controversy, resulting in Congress failing to update it since 1992.
This lack of action has raised concerns among many, who fear that the law may not withstand another half-century.
Conservative administrations and lawmakers have actively sought to weaken the law, receiving support from landowner and industry groups who argue that it restricts property rights and hampers economic growth.
Furthermore, members of Congress are increasingly attempting to override the opinions of government experts when it comes to protecting individual species.
According to Bruce Westerman, the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and an Arkansas Republican, the act in question is well-intentioned but outdated.
He believes that it has been twisted and manipulated by radical litigants, turning it into a political battleground rather than an essential piece of conservation law.
In response to this, Westerman and a group of GOP lawmakers have announced plans to propose changes to the act.
On the other side of the argument, environmentalists argue that regulators are intentionally delaying new listings in order to appease critics.
They also claim that Congress does not allocate enough funding to fulfill the act’s intended mission. Jamie Rappaport Clark, the president of the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife, states that the act’s biggest challenge is a lack of resources, describing it as “starving.”
In today’s politically polarized climate, some experts argue that the survival of the Endangered Species Act hinges on the challenging task of rebuilding bipartisan support.
During a recent floor debate in May, Senate Environment and Public Works chairman Tom Carper emphasized the significance of this legislation in addressing biodiversity loss in the United States.
Carper underscored the importance of preserving biodiversity, not only for the protection of human health but also due to the moral imperative of being responsible stewards of our planet.
Despite Carper’s impassioned plea, the Senate voted to nullify the endangered designation of the northern long-eared bat, with opponents contending that disease rather than economic development was primarily responsible for the population decline.
This decision is viewed as an ominous sign by Kurta, a scientist from Michigan, who is actively involved in a bat netting project. Kurta points out that the population of the northern long-eared bat has plummeted by 90% within a remarkably short period of time, leading him to question what it would take for a species to be listed as endangered if not for such drastic declines.
The transformation in attitudes towards the law pertaining to environmental protection and wildlife conservation is truly remarkable, as pointed out by Holly Doremus, a distinguished law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
The extent to which these changes have occurred is nothing short of astounding, catching many by surprise. In the not-so-distant past, the public’s attention was captivated by the plight of iconic animals such as the American alligator, Florida panther, and California condor.
These magnificent creatures were on the brink of extinction due to factors like habitat destruction and the use of harmful substances like the pesticide DDT.
Moreover, human activities, such as over-harvesting and considering these species as mere nuisances, further exacerbated their already precarious situation.
The enactment of the 1973 measure ushered in a significant turning point in environmental protection, making it expressly unlawful to engage in various activities such as harassing, hunting, or collecting listed animals and plants, as well as disturbing their habitats.
This legislation also imposed limitations on federal agencies, preventing them from authorizing or funding actions that would likely portend a threat to the survival of these species.
While amendments were later introduced to permit limited “take”—incidental killing—that resulted from legal projects, the initial bill was passed with remarkable ease, garnering unanimous support in the Senate and a resounding 390-12 vote in the House.
President Richard Nixon, a Republican, saw the necessity of this law and signed it into effect. It is important to note that this legislation did not solely stem from the whims of the environmental movement, as Rebecca Hardin, an environmental anthropologist from the University of Michigan, points out.
Rather, it originated from a shared conviction that our nation had inflicted considerable harm upon the environment and that it was now incumbent upon us to embark on a course of healing.
Nonetheless, the ramifications of this act were met with resistance from several industries, including oil and gas development, logging, and ranching, who found their practices subjected to stringent regulation.
The list of endangered species expanded to include not just the well-known animals such as whales and grizzly bears, but also less conspicuous creatures such as the frosted flatwoods salamander and the tooth cave spider, along with nearly 1,000 plants.
This expansion of the endangered list led to unforeseen consequences, whereby the need for protection clashed with certain economic activities.
The gradual recognition of these dilemmas eventually prompted a nationwide debate. One of the earliest and most contentious examples was that of the snail darter, a minuscule fish found in the Southeastern United States.
Construction of a dam in Tennessee was delayed due to its endangered status, creating a wedge between proponents of development and those advocating for the preservation of the species’ sole remaining habitat.
Similarly, the designation of the northern spotted owl as a threatened species in 1990 set off a protracted conflict between conservationists and the timber industry regarding the management of forestland in the Pacific Northwest.
In retrospect, the passage of the 1973 measure can be seen as both a milestone in environmental protection and a catalyst for a series of confrontations between competing interests.
Rappaport Clark, the former head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during President Bill Clinton’s administration, has expressed concern over the dwindling support from GOP moderates in Congress.
According to Clark, the current political climate is highly partisan, and the fate of crucial environmental legislation, such as the protection of endangered species, rests on the slim Democratic majority in the Senate.
The Trump administration had rolled back blanket protection for newly deemed threatened animals, allowing economic considerations and disregarding the impact of habitat destruction due to climate change.
While some of these measures were blocked by federal judges, the Biden administration has repealed or announced plans to rewrite others. However, recent votes in the Senate and House, with a few Democratic defections, have resulted in the undoing of protections for rare species like the lesser prairie chicken and the northern long-eared bat.
President Joe Biden has threatened vetoes, but wildlife advocates fear that these votes highlight the vulnerability of the legislation, not only to repeal but also to erosion through legislative, agency, or court actions. Several bills are pending that could further weaken the Endangered Species Act, including one that would prohibit listings causing significant economic harm and another that would remove gray wolves and grizzly bears from the protected list and prevent courts from reinstating their protection.
This erosion of scientific principles in favor of political considerations is a nightmare for wildlife conservationists, who believe that science should be the guiding principle in managing endangered species.
ELUSIVE MIDDLE GROUND
The issue of how many species the federal regulators should protect and for how long has become a contentious battleground, as concerns arise regarding the balance between conservation efforts and the interests of property owners and industry.
Since the inception of the law, only 64 out of approximately 1,780 listed U.S. species have experienced a significant recovery and have been removed from the endangered list.
Similarly, 64 species have improved from being endangered to threatened. Tragically, eleven species have been declared extinct, and an additional 23, including the iconic ivory-billed woodpecker, are proposed to be labeled as such.
These statistics are deemed inadequate by Jonathan Wood, the vice president of law and policy for the Property and Environment Research Center, an organization representing landowners.
Wood argues that the Endangered Species Act was intended to act as a temporary but life-saving measure, comparable to a hospital emergency room, rather than providing perpetual hospice care for numerous species.
However, Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, offers an alternative perspective. Greenwald explains that most species require a minimum of fifty years to recover, but the majority have not been listed for that long.
Additionally, he highlights that the listing process often takes a decade or more, exacerbating the species’ condition and impeding their recovery. This delay is further compounded by the backlog of over 300 species currently under consideration by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Greenwald asserts that the agency is failing to fulfill its obligations, citing a combination of inadequate funding and a fear of backlash as contributing factors.
Agency officials themselves admit to struggling with listing proposals and the development of restoration strategies, acknowledging the complexity of the task at hand coupled with limited budgets.
Notably, while Congress allocates millions of dollars to rescue popular animals such as Pacific salmon and steelhead trout, the financial support for numerous other species amounts to a few thousand dollars annually.
In order to address the ongoing problem and appease critics of the federal government, proponents of the act have put forth a proposal that entails allocating more conservation funding to state and tribal programs.
Although a bill seeking an annual budget of $1.4 billion was approved by the House with bipartisan support in 2022, it fell short in the Senate. Undeterred, the sponsors of the bill are persisting in their efforts to garner support.
To facilitate faster removal of endangered species from the list, the Fish and Wildlife Service is utilizing funds from Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act to enhance its strategies. Director Martha Williams conveyed this information to a House subcommittee in July.
Furthermore, the agency is actively seeking a solution to another intricate issue: ensuring that imperiled species have enough space to feed, seek shelter, and reproduce.
This has prompted the government to identify “critical habitat” areas where economic development can be restricted. Initially, it was believed that public lands and waters such as state and national parks, as well as wildlife refuges, would suffice for this purpose, according to Doremus, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
However, it has now become apparent that roughly two-thirds of the listed species inhabit private property, and their conservation often necessitates perpetual care. For instance, the removal of the Kirtland’s warbler from the endangered list in 2019 was contingent upon continued harvesting and replanting of Michigan jack pines, which serve as nesting grounds for these diminutive songbirds.
To meet the increasingly demanding requirements, it will be necessary to negotiate further agreements with property owners, rather than solely relying on the designation of critical habitats, which can result in diminished property values and breed animosity, as emphasized by Wood, a representative of the landowners group.
Potential incentives could include compensation to property owners or the easing of restrictions on activities like timber cutting and other forms of development, as long as the conservation status of the species in question improves.
Wood contends that achieving cooperation cannot be accomplished solely through enforcement mechanisms, stating that “you can’t police your way” to cooperation.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed regulatory changes this year to encourage voluntary conservation efforts, in the hopes that they will be sufficient to maintain the health of more species and minimize the need for listings.
However, environmentalists argue that voluntary actions are insufficient substitutes for legally enforceable protections. They invoke historical examples such as the voluntary discontinuation of DDT, asserting that few landowners or businesses will willingly sacrifice profits to benefit the environment.
Consequently, they maintain that strong laws and regulations are imperative if the goal is to address the crises of climate change and species extinction, and ultimately leave future generations with a habitable planet.
On that tranquil June night, the serene beauty of nature enveloped the surroundings, as the stars above twinkled and fireflies danced, casting dim flickers of light.
In this surreal setting, Michigan biologists Kurta and Wilson embarked on an important mission, draping a delicate mesh made of fine nylon over the pristine River Raisin, located a mere hour and a half west of Detroit.
As the night unfolded, a symphony of sounds emerged from the depths of the landscape. The rhythmic croaking of frogs blended harmoniously with the rhythmic chirping of crickets, creating a mesmerizing orchestra that praised the magic of the night.
But amidst this enchanting chorus, another creature commanded attention – the mayflies. These seemingly abundant and insignificant insects, often considered mere prey for bats, swarmed the still air, their presence serving as a reminder of the intricate interplay of the natural world.
While bats have long harbored a reputation of fear among human beings, they are increasingly being recognized for their invaluable contributions to the environment.
Beyond their nocturnal flights and surreal acrobatics, bats play a pivotal role in our agricultural landscape. By voraciously consuming crop-destroying insects, these remarkable creatures act as nature’s pest control, protecting valuable harvests and safeguarding the livelihoods of farmers across the United States.
The benefits they bring to our agricultural sector are not mere trivialities; instead, they present a staggering economic gain, adding a substantial $3 billion annually to the industry.
Amidst the tranquil ambiance and the undulating river current, Kurta, one of the accomplished biologists present that night, passionately emphasized the importance of bats.
With the aid of a cutting-edge electronic device designed to detect the bats’ nocturnal flights, he marvelously illustrated their significance.
With each swoop of the bats overhead, the device responded, capturing their movements and serving as a testament to their remarkable capabilities. In this poignant moment, Kurta highlighted the bat’s role as an unsung hero of agriculture, weaving an intricate tapestry between nature and our daily lives.
It is in these unassuming encounters, when we recognize the delicate balance of nature and the symbiotic relationships forged within it, that we come to appreciate the intricate web of life that envelops our world. So, the next time you raise a glass of tequila, take a moment to reflect on the bat whose dexterous flight pollinated the agave plant from which that very tequila was made.
Through their tireless efforts in pollination and their ability to navigate the night sky with grace, bats offer us a poignant reminder of the profound impact that nature’s unsung heroes can have on our lives.
As the stars continued to twinkle and the fireflies produced their nocturnal light show, the River Raisin served as a witness to the intangible connection between human beings and the natural world, reminding us of our responsibility to preserve and protect this fragile bond for generations to come.
As the hours slowly passed, the scientists diligently continued their work, hoping to find the elusive endangered species they were searching for.
Eight bats gracefully fluttered into the carefully placed nets, sparking a glimmer of excitement among the researchers.
With meticulous precision, they took various measurements, ensuring that each bat was handled with utmost care. Once the necessary data had been collected, the scientists gently released the bats back into their natural habitat.
However, to their dismay, none of the captured bats belonged to the endangered species they had set out to find. A month later, Kurta, one of the team members, presented the findings of their extensive efforts.
He revealed that after sixteen consecutive nights of netting at eight different sites, they had managed to capture a total of 177 bats.
However, despite their relentless pursuit, only one Indiana bat had been discovered, and not a single northern long-eared specimen. Kurta’s disappointment was palpable, but he acknowledged that this outcome was not entirely unexpected, given the rarity of these endangered species.