President and CEO, The Humane Society of the United States
Throughout American history, we’ve seen an expansion of moral concern reflected in our laws and in social attitudes—from the abolition of slavery, to women’s suffrage, to workplace safety, to civil rights for minorities and gays—and to progress for animals and nature. This progress has often been halting and uneven, but it’s been unyielding. We are becoming, step by step, a more civil, inclusive, and compassionate society.
As some predator populations have reclaimed portions of their historical range—thanks largely to the Endangered Species Act—we’ve witnessed their beneficial impacts on ecosystems. In Yellowstone, wolves have checked the growth of elk and bison populations, and the effects of these reduced populations are being felt up and down the trophic system.
The late 1960s and early 1970s was a period of remarkable and rapid change, triggered, in part by the awakening of social activism against the Vietnam War. When it came to environmental activism and change, we held the first Earth Day and formed the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). We also witnessed enactment of powerful legislation: the National Environmental Protection Act, the Airborne Hunting Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Endangered Species Act. These landmark laws still resonate for the nation today.
The Endangered Species Act enshrined the notion espoused by Aldo Leopold that the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the parts—from wispy butterflies and small fish, to muscled, massive grizzly bears. The Act has placed the government in a position to check the actions of private citizens and corporations bent on killing wildlife for their selfish purposes or profits and robbing posterity of these cohabitants.
The Act is a statement that all species matter. It has been a particularly important tool in allowing us to re-examine our relationship with predators such as wolves, bears, and sharks. Throughout our nation’s history, these and other species have been subjected to ruthless eradication campaigns, perhaps because these animals inspire some primal fear in us and, in the case of the terrestrial species, interfere with human designs for agricultural grazing and recreational hunting.
As some predator populations have reclaimed portions of their historical range—thanks largely to the Endangered Species Act—we’ve witnessed their beneficial impacts on ecosystems. In Yellowstone, wolves have checked the growth of elk and bison populations, and the effects of these reduced populations are being felt up and down the trophic system. Wolves have also drawn in tens of thousands of tourists, thus driving economic development and demonstrating that there are many more people interested in appreciating wildlife than exploiting it. In short, wolves have proven to be not just to be an ecological benefit, but an economic one, as well.
Public attitudes often follow the law, and in this case, the Endangered Species Act is guiding us toward a better understanding of the wildlife and our responsibilities to other species. I am particularly grateful for the role that the Act has played in predator protection, as we confront the challenges in building tolerance for other species that also range widely and lay their own claims to the planet.