Lack Of Enforcement Threatens The Endangered Species Act

9:32 minutes

a close up of a florida panther
Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It’s been nearly 50 years since the Endangered Species Act passed. The 1973 legislation, designed to give government agencies tools to protect species threatened by development or other economic activity, still enjoys high amounts of public support.

But, as investigative reporter Jimmy Tobias writes for The Intercept and Type Investigations this week, one of the main government agencies tasked with enforcing the Act seems to be increasingly hesitant to use its power to block development, a trend that’s stretched back at least since the Clinton administration. 

Tobias writes about how this lack of enforcement threatens the survival of one particular animal, the Florida panther—whose Southwest Florida habitat, and roughly 150 remaining members, are at risk from a major proposed development. 

Ira talks to Tobias about the panther, the ESA, and what conservationists think needs to change. 

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Segment Guests

Jimmy Tobias

Jimmy Tobias is an investigative reporter and contributor to The Nation and The Guardian, based in New York, New York. He is a 2021 Alicia Patterson Fellow.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: It’s been nearly 50 years since the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, designed to protect species threatened by development or other consequences of economic growth. But how well is it working, as we stare down the world’s sixth great mass extinction?

Investigative reporter Jimmy Tobias looked at the Endangered Species Act through the lens of one struggling big cat, the endangered Florida Panther. He’s a contributing writer for The Nation and The Guardian. He’s also a 2021 Alicia Patterson fellow. And his reporting on the Florida Panther appears in The Intercept this week. Welcome, Jimmy.

JIMMY TOBIAS: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re quite welcome. Tell us more about the Florida Panther first. How endangered are they?

JIMMY TOBIAS: Sure, yeah. The Florida Panther is a subspecies of the once abundant cougar. It’s now the last of its kind along the Eastern seaboard. And it’s facing all sorts of threats.

As a big cat, it needs large landscapes to survive, but its habitat is getting gobbled up by development. Panthers are regularly run over on the roads. In South Florida, faces competition from invasive species and a number of genetic maladies. One of the sources I spoke to for my story, who’s a renowned National Park Service biologist, told me there’s about 150 left in the world.

IRA FLATOW: That’s it in the whole world, 150? And now developers are after some of their last habitat. What’s going on there?

JIMMY TOBIAS: Well, Florida has a booming population and lots of development, and it’s constantly encroaching on Florida Panther habitat. And right now, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service– which is our country’s most important wildlife conservation agency, it enforces the Endangered Species Act– it is considering a plan from a group of landowners in South Florida. A plan that would, if approved, allow them to build a string of new residential and commercial developments in Panther habitat in South Florida.

IRA FLATOW: And how big a piece of real estate are we talking about here?

JIMMY TOBIAS: Well, if the plan is approved as currently written, it would allow for development in roughly 45,000 acres of Panther habitat. And you know, the plan does have some conservation benefits. It would set aside lands for preservation. But opponents of this plan are very concerned that the development will push the Panther towards extinction. That it could jeopardize the survival and recovery of this endangered subspecies.

IRA FLATOW: Because they would be adding like, what, hundreds of thousands of people in that area.

JIMMY TOBIAS: Yeah. An analysis by the conservationist opponents of the plan found that it could bring hundreds of thousands of new people to the area, as well as cars. And roadkill is a leading cause of death for Panthers, so that’s a major concern. The impact of new cars in the area, the impact of new people, and just the loss of habitat from development.

A recent paper in the journal plus one by scientists in Florida found that, you know, the Panther is restricted to something like 5% of its historic range in one population, and that it can’t afford to lose any more of its core habitat if it’s going to survive and thrive in the future. And so that’s the real concern. There’s just– this species is really struggling and it can’t afford habitat loss. That’s what the science says and that’s what conservationists are saying.

IRA FLATOW: I started out talking about the Endangered Species Act. Let’s get into that a bit. What does that act require in a case like this?

JIMMY TOBIAS: Sure. Well, the Endangered Species Act is one of our most powerful environmental laws. It was passed overwhelmingly by Congress and it gives the United States a great deal of authority to block developments that harm endangered species. Basically, the message of that law is that no one has the right to send a species to the brink of extinction or towards extinction.

And so under the law, the Fish and Wildlife Service has the authority to block a great deal of development from infrastructure projects to any kind of development that has any sort of federal permit. But it almost never does. The agency almost never blocks projects. And that’s been an ongoing trend, a bipartisan trend for many years now. So that has put species like the Panther in a pretty tough bind.

IRA FLATOW: Do we think this might be different in this case with the Panther? Is there hope that it might actually block it?

JIMMY TOBIAS: You know, most of the sources I talked to, former Fish and Wildlife Service officials in Florida, conservationists, very few of them are optimistic that the agency is going to block this plan. And in fact, the Fish and Wildlife Service has permitted the destruction of tens of thousands of acres of Panther habitat in Florida over the last couple of decades. So its track record on this issue is not great.

IRA FLATOW: Does this mean that the Endangered Species Act really isn’t being enforced right now? Or are there other rules through which it can still have teeth?

JIMMY TOBIAS: Many people feel, who closely observe the Fish and Wildlife Service, that it is not adequately enforcing this law. That it too often bends to pressure from political interests, from corporate interests. You know, that it doesn’t have the resources it needs or the political support it needs to aggressively enforce this law.

And you know, this law is immensely popular with the American public. A poll in 2018 found that something like 80% of the American public support the ESA. So there’s a great deal of support among the people, it’s just that the government doesn’t have the gumption or the resources and suffers from pressures that undermine the enforcement of this very popular law.

IRA FLATOW: So why would the Fish and Wildlife Service not be stepping in to protect endangered species to the degree that the science says they need? Is it what you’re saying, they don’t have the will?

JIMMY TOBIAS: Well, the rank and file of the Fish and Wildlife Service, by and large, is very committed to the conservation of species and wants to do the right thing in many cases. But what I’ve been told by the sources I’ve talked to, and I’ve talked to many Fish and Wildlife Service retirees especially, is that the upper management too often is willing to bend to political pressures, you know, out of careerist intentions or out of just an unwillingness to engage in conflict or to take that tough stand. And so that’s part of the problem. There’s a cultural problem I think within the upper echelons of the agency.

And yes, also, the agency is underfunded. That’s– many, many people believe that. And it just doesn’t have the political air cover from Congress and the White House that it needs to really enforce this law to the full extent.

IRA FLATOW: I can understand that, because there’s a lot of money involved here, especially when developers come in and want to build for hundreds of thousands of people.

JIMMY TOBIAS: That’s right. And there’s also, you know, a lot of pressure from kind of conservative pressure groups, industry groups that are constantly suing the agency to block stronger protections and things along those lines. It’s a very complicated situation. But you know, the bottom line message is that this law that so many people love is not really being allowed to fulfill its true potential.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

Let’s talk about how many other species might this trend of inaction be putting in danger.

JIMMY TOBIAS: The science says that we’re living through this sixth great extinction. A UN backed panel two years ago found that as many as one million species face the threat of extinction in the coming decades or beyond. And that’s happening right here at home. You know, there are many, many species in the United States, from Panthers to right whales to sage-grouse to salmon that face a very bleak future. And unless this agency can really get its act together, you know, there’s not a lot of hope right now. And so, you know, it’s definitely imperative upon the public to put pressure on this agency, I think to do the right thing, and this new administration.

IRA FLATOW: So speaking of administration, can you recall an administration, thinking back, that really believed strongly in enforcing these rules?

JIMMY TOBIAS: You know, when I speak to Fish and Wildlife Service people, they often look back on the era of– the Clinton era, when Molly Beatty was the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, as a really high point for the agency. But since then, there seems to be a trend where it has become ever weaker. And so people, I think, are clamoring and hoping for new leadership that can really revitalize an agency that is full of great scientists and great people who want to, you know, conserve the flora and the fauna of this country.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we hear that Joe Biden and his administration is, you know, the new environmental president. I guess we’ll have to wait and see how this moves through his administration.

JIMMY TOBIAS: Yes, the jury’s definitely out. And you know, I think we will see how this administration handles the Endangered Species Act, whether they take a different tack from the Obama era, where people feel, I think– Fish and Wildlife Service people and outside conservation groups feel– that the Obama administration didn’t quite fully embrace this law.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Jimmy, for taking time to talk with us.

JIMMY TOBIAS: Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Jimmy Tobias, an investigative reporter who contributes to The Guardian and The Nation. His latest story about the Florida panthers and the development of their habitat appeared on The Intercept this week.

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