John Horning

Executive Director, WildEarth Guardians

I am forever grateful for the Endangered Species Act and the courage and ethical clarity of its original framers.

I have been an advocate for protecting the Rio Grande and securing the river’s rights to its own waters for nearly two decades. It has been a struggle, as we seek to overcome a cultural and legal paradigm that sees value only when a river’s water is diverted to flood-irrigate alfalfa or make microchips instead of remaining as the lifeblood of a free-flowing river.

Throughout this struggle, the Endangered Species Act has been my near-constant companion, largely thanks to the sad plight of the Rio Grande silvery minnow and its terrestrial partner-in-peril, the Southwestern willow flycatcher. Both are stoic messengers of the dire straights of the Rio Grande; neither is charismatic nor has a natural constituency of advocates like salmon or wolves.

On occasion I have sat awestruck through day-long meetings full of state and federal bureaucrats whose agencies have significant stakes in the Rio Grande’s water. I’m awestruck by the fact that all these people are here, talking about a river’s needs and the status of a little-known, three-inch fish. Given the resistance to change exhibited by most water users, I rarely have to remind myself that we are here for one reason: the ethical clarity and legal fortitude of the Endangered Species Act. But for the Act, I have no doubt that one of America’s greatest rivers would be left high and dry.

The reductionist thinking that plagues our modern times has sometimes led water users to think about the minnow as if its needs could somehow be met separately from and differently than the river’s needs. But the silvery minnow and the Act behind it have pushed many water users to at least think about the river—and that is progress in my eyes. And for that small measure of progress, I am forever grateful for the Endangered Species Act and the courage and ethical clarity of its original framers.

I imagine they believed, as do I, that the only way to judge the evolutionary magic that manifests as a small, silvery fish in the Rio Grande is to believe in its—and all species—intrinsic worth.