Happy Birthday, ESA! Marking 50 years of the Endangered Species Act

Photo: Robert Scriba
At this 50 year milestone of the Endangered Species Act, we reflect on the conservation journey so far.

By Kayla Heinze, Communications Specialist

Fifty years ago, a piece of environmental legislation was signed into law that significantly altered the landscape of wildlife conservation in the U.S. The Endangered Species Act (ESA), having its big birthday Dec. 28, has had lasting impacts for species of all kinds, including grizzlies here in the Northern Rockies.

In another big anniversary earlier this month, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) celebrated 40 years of their efforts on behalf of the species. At Vital Ground, we are also crossing multiple noteworthy milestones. By the end of 2023, your support will have propelled us across the threshold of $1 million distributed to Conservation Partners, 1 million acres protected and enhanced and over $20 million of conservation investments made through our strategic One Landscape Initiative

As these numerous markers invite us to reflect on progress made, we are also buoyed by historic returns. In October, trail camera photos and tracks confirmed that a grizzly bear was present in the Upper Missouri River Breaks. To us, this sighting is the anecdotal capstone that tells the story of species recovery better than any numerical anniversary or milestone. This individual is the farthest east grizzly documented in Montana in over a century — a living monument to our collective conservation efforts. 

While range expansion is a true reason for optimism in the case of this species that was almost entirely eradicated south of the Canadian border, the road of recovery remains a complicated and uncertain one. At this 50-year precipice, there is much to consider as we look ahead.

Grizzlies under the ESA

These two grizzly cubs are part of the recovering population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. (Photo: Eric Johnston/Yellowstone National Park).

Coming on the heels of over a century of willful persecution of wildlife as European settlers developed this continent into the modern America we know today, the ESA formalized into our federal structures a counterforce of conservation.

As author Dan Flores (who spoke with Vital Ground earlier this fall) recently wrote, the ESA, “reversed one of the most disturbing histories of wildlife destruction of any modern nation…expanding the circle of morality.”

Under the ESA, grizzly bears were listed as threatened in 1975, when their numbers in the Lower 48 had dipped below 700. “Threatened” species receive a level of protected status one tier below “endangered,” but still merit federal protections related to hunting and habitat conservation. Since their initial listing, careful management has allowed grizzly population strongholds in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) in and around Glacier National Park to recover, with a combined total of around 2,000 individuals. These bears are now repopulating broader geographies from their protected cores, returning to historic habitats on the prairies and elsewhere.  

In 2017, this positive growth led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to briefly remove the GYE grizzly population from the threatened species lists. State agencies received full management authority. Tribes and a coalition of nonprofits challenged the USFWS decision, taking it to court where a federal judge ruled that, despite the increase in sheer numbers, the GYE population still warranted federal protection and management oversight due to the lack of natural connectivity and genetic exchange with other populations. This legal exchange is one chapter in an ongoing debate about the long-term role of ESA protection, what constitutes species recovery, who should be responsible for bear management and whether delisting is an appropriate step at this point in grizzly’s conservation story. 

As a group dedicated to the species and deeply concerned with their long-term well-being, Vital Ground closely monitors all decisions, policies and management plans that impact grizzlies on both the federal level and in the various states that are home or potential homes to grizzly populations. We occasionally submit public comments but do not take a blanket position on delisting.

Regardless of listing status, or human-mediated translocation efforts, natural connectivity and undeveloped open space will always remain important goals for long-term species stability. That’s why Vital Ground dedicates the majority of our focus and efforts to the lasting good achieved through permanent habitat protection. 

As additional conversations swirl about whether to focus on recovering stronghold populations in the NCDE and GYE until they can be delisted or whether to simultaneously reintroduce grizzlies to the North Cascades and potentially Bitterroot ecosystems, Vital Ground continues our two-pronged mission of protecting habitat and preventing conflicts. 

In an unpredictable political and ecological time, we see value in the consistency offered by private land conservation that connects larger landscapes. In addition, our longstanding community partnerships enable the use of time-tested practices and innovative technologies so people can continue to coexist with grizzlies and other powerful creatures. This work builds deep roots, helping keep the species stable amid time’s shifting winds. 

A continuing journey for wildlife conservation

Bull trout, another threatened species protected under the ESA, migrating upstream in the Clark Fork River of Montana. (Photo: Joel Sartore/National Geographic and Wade Fredenberg/USFWS).

ESA protection has been, and will continue to be, an important tool for preserving native wildlife and plants. Grizzlies are just one of over 2,000 species currently protected under the legislation. Many other species are similarly involved in complicated recovery situations as our present society balances unique circumstances of climate change, modern management techniques and myriad social and recreational values.

Like the ESA, Vital Ground’s efforts ultimately strive for the well-being of multiple species, using private land agreements to cast conservation coverage over an interconnected web encompassing everything from butterflies to bears. We fill our niche and tend to relationships with the broader ecosystem of conservation organizations to help shape the legacy of this landscape. 

The initiators of the ESA could not have predicted what the following five decades would demand. Neither can we envision precisely what opportunities, needs and dreams will rise up as our shared story continues to unfold. But for grizzlies and the countless creatures who share their range, habitat protection offers a durable foundation for whatever is to come.

We take note of these significant milestones that mark forward motion but celebrate them only briefly. We know there is no finite end goal for conservation, but rather an ongoing collective journey to love and protect life in all its remarkable and diverse forms and to live with the land in a way that lets that love shine through. Always, but especially in this moment of reflection, we cannot thank you enough for being with us on the journey.

Maintain the momentum and sustain lasting conservation today…

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