Kieran Suckling

Executive Director, Center for Biological Diversity

In 1982, as a high school senior living on Cape Cod, I signed up to help save Plymouth red-bellied turtles that—though once found in ponds and waterways across much of eastern Massachusetts—were in serious trouble. To be honest, saving the turtles seemed like a bit of a long shot. Two years earlier, when they had been awarded Endangered Species Act protections, fewer than fifty Plymouth red-bellied turtles remained in the wild. To help recover them, we raised inch-long hatchlings in captivity, feeding them lettuce and vitamins, then released them into the wild once they’d gained enough size to have a fighting chance against great blue herons, skunks, raccoons, and other predators.

The widespread success of the Endangered Species Act over its first forty years is undeniable.

At the time, the Endangered Species Act was only nine years old, and I could not have imagined the tremendous role it would play in saving hundreds of plants and animals, let alone the central role it would end up playing in my own life.

Now, on the 40th anniversary of the Act, every American should stop and celebrate the fact that the law known for preserving bald eagles, grizzlies, and wolves has saved a remarkable 99 percent of the more than 1,400 species entrusted to its care.

Years after my efforts to help save that struggling population of turtles, I co-founded the Center for Biological Diversity that—for more than two decades now—has worked every day to save hundreds our nation’s most imperiled plants, insects, and animals.

During our recent coast-to-coast analysis of more than one hundred species protected by the Endangered Species Act, I checked back in on the Plymouth red-bellied turtles and found that they, like hundreds of other species protected by the Act, are on the path toward recovery. Overall, our analysis revealed that 90 percent of protected species are recovering on pace to meet the recovery goals set out by federal scientists, and some are even coming in ahead of schedule.

The California least tern, a shorebird that had dwindled to just 225 pairs when it was protected in 1970, today has more than 6,000 pairs.

The black-footed ferret, once thought extinct throughout its range in the middle of the country, went from zero animals in the wild, in 1991, to more than 1,400 in 2010.

The Florida population of the Atlantic green sea turtle, listed as endangered in 1978, grew by 2,200 percent between 1989 and 2011.

And, yes, even populations of the Plymouth red-bellied turtle are looking hopeful: There are now as many as 600 breeding-age individuals in the wild in twenty ponds.

The widespread success of the Endangered Species Act over its first forty years is undeniable. And as we head into the Act’s second forty years, it’s clear we need the Act’s power—now more than ever before—to combat the mounting pressures of climate change on a wide range of species.