Dear Biden administration,
As the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act approaches, we see both its success in preventing extinctions and the urgent need to achieve the law's ultimate purpose: to restore threatened and endangered species and their habitats to vibrant health.
Achieving that purpose has never been more urgent, as the world faces an unprecedented biodiversity crisis in which nearly 40% of all species face the threat of extinction by the end of this century.
We are deeply appreciative of the work you are already doing to fight the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, and in addition to the first ever National Nature Assessment, and to achieving your goal of protecting 30% of our lands and waters by 2030, we feel that the ESA has more to offer. We urge you to issue an Executive Order to take steps towards fulfilling the ESA's full potential by requiring federal agencies to effectuate their existing ESA obligations and authorities to affirmatively promote species conservation. Specifically, the E.O. should require full implementation of two existing ESA provisions.
First, the E.O. should direct all agencies, not just wildlife agencies, to fulfill their duties under ESA section 7(a)(1) to develop programs that use their existing authority to promote the survival and recovery of listed species. To support that effort, the E.O. should also direct the Departments of the Interior and Commerce to promulgate regulations under ESA section 7(a)(1) to establish a consultation process and standards to ensure federal agencies use their authorities to conserve listed species.
Second, the E.O. should direct the National Marine Fisheries Service to adopt regulations under ESA section 4(d) to establish default take protections for threatened species under the agency's jurisdiction. This common-sense step would provide much-needed protection to prevent these species from declining further. Importantly, it would achieve greater protection while requiring fewer agency resources than the agency's current practice, which has left more than two dozen threatened species without any meaningful protection from the very harms that led to their listing.
The ESA is the strongest means we have to protect biodiversity. But while the law has always emphasized conservation and recovery, agencies and courts have focused almost exclusively on the important, but last-resort obligation to avoid jeopardizing the continued existence of species.
That incomplete approach has left too many species languishing at low numbers and allowed others to decline to critical levels, diminishing our natural heritage and undermining ecosystem function. These species play key roles in their environments. They are predators, grazers, habitat engineers, and, as in the case of corals, provide habitat for myriad other species. When they're too scarce to fill those roles, entire natural communities suffer.
The cheerier flip side to this reality is that restoring these species to abundance can restore the health of ecosystems and make them more resilient to overarching threats like climate change. Better yet, the ESA provides tools to make that happen. We just have to use them.