Frances Beinecke

President, Natural Resources Defense Council

A few years ago, I traveled above the Arctic Circle by boat. One day we saw polar bears cavorting on the ice, their yellowish fur smeared with red from a dinner of seal. But later we passed an island where a polar bear sat on the shore, stranded because the sea ice had receded so far from shore. This bear would not eat until the next winter—it simply couldn’t hunt without ice. The climate scientists on the ship made it clear that, given the record-breaking melt of summer sea ice, this was just one of many endangered bears.

NRDC has championed these creatures because they are keystone species—animals that create the conditions for other living things to survive. The presence of wolves, for instance, keeps elk from stripping riverbanks bare and coyote from eating all the rodents that eagles depend upon.

Climate change is rapidly undermining the natural systems so many animals depend upon. We must confront this crisis by reducing global warming pollution, but, at the same time, we must also protect vulnerable species and ensure they become as resilient as possible in the face of dramatic change. The Endangered Species Act can help us to do it.

This extraordinary law has given us the power to bring wildlife back from the brink. It has allowed us to revive and restore America’s wild heritage, and, together with the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, it has formed the foundation of environmental protection in our country. The Endangered Species Act has also been remarkably successful: 98 percent of the species protected under the law have avoided extinction.

This bedrock environmental law was passed long before scientists fully understood climate change, but its authors wisely focused on the values we want to preserve—the survival of species—instead of on the threats we want to avoid. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has relied on the Endangered Species Act to protect grizzly bears from habitat destruction in the Northern Rockies, and sperm whales from unchecked oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2008, we used it to identify polar bears as threatened by global warming, marking the first time the Endangered Species Act was deployed in the climate crisis.

NRDC has championed these creatures because they are keystone species—animals that create the conditions for other living things to survive. The presence of wolves, for instance, keeps elk from stripping riverbanks bare and coyote from eating all the rodents that eagles depend upon. The mighty whitebark pine tree lets plants flourish in its shadow and provides grizzly bears with the high-calorie pine nuts they need to make it through the winter. When we protect these keystone species, we help preserve many other plants and animals at the same time.

I hope that we can do the same for polar bears and the creatures they sustain, but the Endangered Species Act will only help us safeguard species if it remains strong itself. This 40-year-old law is facing attack from lawmakers bent on eroding environmental protections. We cannot let the politics of the moment endanger the natural heritage we leave for future generations. We must protect this law, just as it has protected America’s wildlife.