In summary

The survival of the California condor is a testament to the Endangered Species Act, which has prevented the extinction of 99% of species under its protection.

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By Noah Greenwald, Special to CalMatters

Noah Greenwald is director of the Endangered Species Program at the Center for Biological Diversity.

If you want to experience the power of the Endangered Species Act for yourself, go to Sequoia National Park and look up. There, gliding high on the thermals, you’ll see the embodiment of this extraordinarily successful law: California condors.

As the planet grapples with how to combat an extinction crisis that threatens more than 1 million species, the recovery of the condor should serve as a reminder of what can be accomplished when the hard work of conservationists is backed by political will.

Before European colonization, the condor, with its incredible 9-foot wingspan, could be found soaring over the Southwest and along the Pacific Coast from Baja, Mexico, to British Columbia, feeding on deer and pronghorn antelope in the mountains and whales and sea lions on the coast.

And then we came within a whisper of driving them into extinction, just as we had done with passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets. Decades of persecution and use of lead ammunition, which is deadly for these scavengers, put condors into a tailspin. With the species on the brink of oblivion, the last free-flying condor was captured and brought into a captive-breeding program in 1987.  

Today, there are more than 300 condors in the wild in Southern California and Arizona and there are plans to soon reintroduce them to Redwoods National Park in Northern California.

Their survival, though still tenuous, is a direct testament to the Endangered Species Act. The act can seem like something from another world now – a sweeping environmental law requested by Republican President Richard Nixon and approved almost unanimously by Congress. The unified resolve that buttressed the law, so absent today in federal environmental policy, set the stage for the positive changes to come.

Today, the efficacy of the Endangered Species Act is undeniable. It has prevented the extinction of 99% of species placed under its protection. The reason? The law comes with real and meaningful protections not only for species but for their most important habitat. Nature is resilient – when you address the threats to species and abide by a roadmap for their recovery, wildlife respond and return.

Last year I co-authored a study that found that, of the more than 1,700 animals and plants protected under the Endangered Species Act, just four species went extinct after receiving protection and another 22 are possibly extinct.

The rest, though, have survived and many have thrived. The ESA is the reason we have bald eagles, peregrine falcons, right whales, gray wolves and grizzlies in the lower 48 states – and condors.

Just last month we celebrated the recovery and removal of the 47th species from the endangered species list: Oregon’s Borax Lake chub. And while we cherish every success story, there are hundreds of species across the nation edging closer to extinction every day that have no Endangered Species Act protection.

Frustratingly the Trump administration has been abysmal. Not only have key provisions of the Endangered Species Act been obliterated but a mere 23 species have been added to the list – the worst among any president since the Endangered Species Act’s passage.

And even for species that are protected, progress remains fragile. Some condors, for instance, still die from lead poisoning. And although California banned lead ammunition last year, other states have not followed suit and the Trump administration reversed a ban on the toxic ammunition on National Wildlife Refuges put in place at the end of the Obama administration.

Still, it’s hard not to look up at condors soaring high overhead and not believe that species – even those taken to the edge of extinction – can be saved. And they must be. The alternative is too tragic to ponder, a world where more than a million species vanish from our planet in the coming decades. A world that’s eerily quiet and unbearably lonely for those who remain.

We have the tools we need to finally stem this extinction crisis, tools like the Endangered Species Act. What’s needed now is the courage and the will to use them.

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