Lee Talbot

A Personal Perspective on the Endangered Species Act

of 1973 (ESA) and the Convention on International Trade

in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora(CITES)

Lee M. Talbot

I grew up in a conservation family with endangered species conservation as part of my heritage. My maternal grandfather was Dr. C. Hart Merriam, founder and first head of the Biological Survey which became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  A pioneer ecologist, he may be best known for the life zone theory of distribution of plants and animals which was a foundation of ecology for perhaps a half century.  My mother was an ethnologist and naturalist, very concerned with conservation.  And my father, M.W. Talbot, was a pioneer range and wildlife ecologist who, after years of field work in the southwest, was director of the California Forest and Range Experiment Station, the research branch of the U.S. Forest Service, and a professor at University of California, Berkeley.  A lifelong conservationist, in 1924 he worked with his Forest Service friend, Aldo Leopold, initiating the Gila, the nation’s first wilderness area; helped with the early days of the Wilderness Society; was a founder of the Society for Range Management; and constantly worked for conservation and science-based sustainable management of the nation’s forests and rangelands.

Hiking, camping and pack trips in the wilderness with the wonderful conservation and ecological insights and guidance of my parents was an integral part of my early years. My undergraduate studies at the University of California Berkeley were in liberal arts and wildlife ecology,  my MS in Vertebrate Ecology and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in geography/ecology, all with a tilt toward conservation.   On emerging from the U.S. Marine Corps in 1954, I was asked to research African and Asian endangered species at the National Academy of Sciences, and this led to the position of first Staff Ecologist of the Brussels-based International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).

The IUCN had been founded in 1948 as an international body composed of both governments and non-governmental organizations. Endangered species conservation was one of its primary and central concerns.  In the early 1950s information about the status of species and of conservation in general was generally unavailable for the developing parts of the world, and it was determined that the only way to obtain it, and develop conservation plans accordingly, was to send someone to get the information directly. I had the great good fortune to be chosen as that someone. A young ecologist’s dream job, this position involved first consulting individuals and organizations concerned with conservation throughout Europe and North America, and then conducting surveys of conservation conditions and endangered species throughout parts of Africa, the Middle East, South and South-East Asia.  In each country, in addition to identifying and consulting the often-few individuals concerned with conservation, I sought to get into the field to see conditions and analyze situations for myself.  This entailed organizing expeditions into many of the wildest areas to determine first hand the status of species such as the Arabian oryx, Syrian wild Ass, Javan, Sumatran and Great Indian rhinos, Asian lion, Kashmir stag and Arabian Ostrich.

My first book, published in England in 1960, was entitled “A Look at Threatened Species”, and many of my 300 some subsequent publications have addressed endangered species either directly or in the context of broader conservation issues. For example, “Endangered Species” was the title of my 1970 editorial in Bioscience.

I had the great good fortune – and good judgement! — to marry Marty Hayne, a  marvelous, beautiful Lady Biologist who is as concerned with endangered species conservation as I am, and who subsequently has worked with me on environmental issues in around 60 nations.  In addition to years of safari-based field research in East Africa, we served as conservation advisors to 11 Southeast Asian governments, worked together on the conservation section of the International Biological Program, and handled conservation and environmental science at the Smithsonian Institution.

In 1961 we took time off ecological research to help organize the Conference on Conservation in Modern African States, in Arusha, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), sponsored by IUCN, FAO, UNESCO and the Council for Scientific Research in Africa. The participants included ministers or other officials from most African nations that had recently become independent or would become so in the next few years.  In our years of field ecological research in East Africa Marty and I had heard and seen a great deal about poaching of endangered species. Consequently, at Arusha I held a side meeting of wildlife authorities from the African nations to discuss the issue of endangered species and poaching and what could be done about it.  The consensus from the meeting was that the problem stemmed from the demand end of things, specifically Europe and the U.S.  The supply countries lacked the dollars and the manpower to protect the species from well organized poaching funded from afar, so action was needed to control the trade. They agreed that an international agreement might be the best way to deal with the issue of demand.  Two years later at the IUCN General Assembly in Nairobi, I worked on the issue with Wolfgang Burhenne who was IUCN’s legal advisor and chair of the IUCN Law Commission. We presented the proposal as a resolution for IUCN action which was passed unanimously, and over the next years IUCN developed the basis of what became the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

When Marty and I were with the Smithsonian Institution in the late 1960s I also served as Science Advisor to the Joint Senate-House Committee on Environment. Of course,  endangered species conservation was one of my concerns and I felt that the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 was inadequate for the needs. Consequently, at the start of 1970 when President Nixon asked Smithsonian Secretary Dillon Ripley to loan me to the White House to help start the new President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), I saw an opportunity to bring endangered species high on the nation’s agenda and hopefully get a much stronger endangered species act. I also felt it would be an opportunity to move the CITES convention forward.

Fortunately, Russell Train, an old friend, was the first chairman of the new CEQ, and he strongly supported my endeavors.  One result was a mention of the problem of endangered species, especially in an international context, in the CEQ’s first Annual Report (1970). Subsequently I made a list of the provisions I thought were needed in a new and much stronger ESA.  Later, in his 1972 Environmental Message, President Nixon said “I have asked for a new and more effective Federal law to protect endangered species of wildlife – by covering species likely to become endangered as well as those more immediately threatened, and by imposing Federal penalties for taking of such species “(President’s Message, August, 1972). The text of the proposed new endangered species act was included in “The President’s 1972 Environmental Program” which accompanied the Environmental Message.

There were, of course, many zigs and zags in the route from concept to passage of legislation, and I will only note a few here.

The US Department of the Interior had the lead on such legislation. Nathanial Reed, Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, was dedicated to conservation and was extraordinarily supportive and helpful. His office had overseen preparation of the legislation. I had given them my list of provisions, and they prepared their own draft proposal for a new ESA which subsequently was cleared through the Executive Branch by the Office of Management and Budget.

Then we hit a snag. Some in the agencies questioned why a revised ESA was required at this time and consequently objected to it. Here CITES and the ESA became mutually supportive.  We had gotten the proposal for CITES on the U.S. agenda for the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, and the U.S. had agreed to host a plenipotentiary conference to negotiate the convention in Washington at the start of 1973.   The conference produced the agreed convention which subsequently came into force. CITES required that each participating nation establish a Scientific Authority and a Management Authority to implement the convention.  Consequently, new endangered species legislation was required to establish these authorities, and this provided a successful argument for the timing of the ESA efforts.

However, I felt that the proposed ESA was far too weak.  This situation is almost automatic because OMB clearance involves approval (and usually weakening) of the text by all the government agencies potentially affected by the proposal.  The resultant ESA was then submitted to the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee of the House of Representatives because this committee handled wildlife and fisheries issues for the House.  Representative John Dingell was chairman of the Committee. He was very concerned with conservation and on various occasions we had discussed a strengthened ESA, so his key aid for these matters, Frank Potter, and I went to work on the ESA text.  We added my provisions that had been dropped, and removed all the “weasel words.”  For example, wherever it said “The Secretary may…” we changed it to “The Secretary will…”, and wherever a directive was followed by the words, “…in so far as practicable” we simply deleted them. The result was one of the strongest pieces of legislation ever submitted to Congress.  Representative Dingell then presented the revised ESA which was passed by the House, a similar one was passed by the Senate and President Nixon signed the bill into law on December 28, 1973.

I have always been quietly satisfied in the knowledge of my role with CITES and ESA, but I admit that it is pleasant to get recognition, even after a long time. Ten years ago Representative Dingell organized a 30 year anniversary celebration of the ESA at the Capital, and invited me as “an author of the ESA.”  And this year the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service published a 40 year commemoration of CITES in their Fish & Wildlife News, with a profile they entitled, “Lee Talbot, Father of CITES.”


July 9, 2013

Lee M. Talbot, Ph.D.

Professor of Environmental Science, International Affairs and Public Policy

George Mason University, Fairfax, VA.