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News / Life / Pets & Wildlife

Endangered Species Act’s 50th anniversary: What 6 Northwest animals can tell us

By Lynda V. Mapes, The Seattle Times
Published: December 25, 2023, 5:00pm

No matter how humble or obscure, all plant, animal and insect life in America is eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act, one of the most far-reaching and important conservation statutes in the world.

Arachnids, birds, corals, crustaceans, flatworms and roundworms, mammals, reptiles, sponges, trees, algae … all species, great and small.

The ESA turns 50 this month, and if beating extinction is the measure, the law has been a success.

Of the more than 1,600 U.S. species listed for protection since the act’s inception, 99% have been rescued from the oblivion of extinction. And some, the bald eagle, gray whales of the northeastern Pacific and peregrine falcons, to name just a few, have recovered to the point they are no longer listed.

In all, as of February, 55 species have been delisted due to recovery — 37 within the past 10 years — while 56 have improved from endangered to threatened, the act’s two protection designations. As of October, 21 listed species have been lost to extinction. Most of those, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, were listed in the 1970s and 1980s and already in very low numbers, or were likely already gone at the time of listing. Federal protection came too late for them.

But there is much more to do: Researchers found in a 2022 study, published in PlosOne, that insufficient funding to support listing, as well as waiting until species are already too far gone before they are protected, undermine success.

Over the decades and amid the lives of so many species, the ESA is no single narrative of success or failure. Each cameo below tells a different tale of the ESA at 50.

Northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina)

It was the poster animal of the campaign that saved more than 20 million acres of old-growth forest on federal lands in three states.

But the story of the ESA and the northern spotted owl shows how sometimes species continue to decline, despite listing and heroic efforts to save them.

The northern spotted owl was listed as a threatened species in 1990. And despite protecting more than 20 million acres of federal old-growth forest habitat the owls depend on, their populations in study areas throughout their range have still declined by 35% to more than 80% over the past two decades, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The trouble is threats to the owl’s survival keep multiplying.

The Northwest Forest Plan stopped all logging of old growth on federal lands in Washington, Oregon and Northern California in 1994. But logging on private land still hammers the owl’s habitat — and so do wildfires. Now the barred owl is outcompeting spotties everywhere they live. Barred owls, native to the eastern U.S., are bigger, are more aggressive and will eat practically anything. Salamanders, frogs, fish, birds, earthworms, snails, slugs and more are vacuumed from the woods by this opportunistic hunter.

Spotted owls have a more limited diet that ties them to the old-growth forest canopy environment. They also have none of the aggressive and territorial manner of the barred owl.

“They are very interactive with people,” said Robin Bown, a spotted-owl biologist for the USFWS based in Portland. She once banded a spotted owl as it sat in her lap. “Scratch them under their chin and they will fall asleep. Barred owls, you call them and they come looking for a bird to tear it apart, screaming at the tops of their lungs.”

The USFWS is proposing a shoot-to-kill program that would take out more than 500,000 barred owls over the next 30 years. The agency’s plan is out for public comment.

Wolverine (Gulo gulo)

These charismatic carnivores of the Cascades are renowned for their ferocity, agility and all-terrain finesse. In the depth of winter, they are at their best, scaling snowy mountain slopes with their big paws and loping strides. With their crampon-like claws, jaws strong enough to crack open frozen bones and thick, dark, double, oily coats, wolverines — also called mountain devils — are masters of the icy north.

“If wolverines have a strategy it’s this: Go hard, and high and steep and never back down. Not even from the biggest grizzly and least of all from the mountain. Climb everything … eat everybody. Alive, dead, long dead, moose, mouse, fox, frog, its still warm heart or frozen bones,” writes Douglas Chadwick in his book, “The Wolverine Way.”

Local populations of wolverine were extinct in Washington by the 1930s. Like most predators, they were shot on sight, trapped and poisoned as vermin. But they have battled their way back to parts of their home range, naturally recolonizing the Cascades by dispersing from British Columbia. Now, loss and fragmentation of habitat due to climate change threatens wolverine survival, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Wolverines need deep snow that persists into spring to create safe dens for their young.

Wolverines used to range along the Cascade crest from the Canadian border but today are exceedingly rare, with maybe as few as 30 to 40 animals in Washington — most of them in the North Cascades.

Yet the ESA, for the wolverine, has been a story of agency indecision.

Environmental groups’ first petition to the USFWS for listing the wolverine dates to 1994, with the agency changing its mind about listing several times ever since. Under a May 2022 court order, the agency finally issued its decision last month, listing the wolverine for protection as a threatened species.

Puget Sound Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha)

More than 130 species depend on Pacific salmon. From the caddisflies that feed on their carcasses and in turn feed juvenile salmon, to the seals, sea lions and endangered orcas that slurp up the fish as they head to freshwater, they’re a keystone species, and a good measure of overall ecosystem health.

European settlers rerouted some rivers and turned others into machines for shipping, electricity generation and drinking water. They converted hundreds of acres of habitat into farmland, and razed forests that purify the water, stabilize stream banks and provide shade for salmon.

Puget Sound Chinook, or king salmon, were first listed under the ESA 24 years ago. There is little to no sign of recovery in most rivers.

The energy it took settlers to make the White River flow in a different direction, to dry up the Black River and to turn the Duwamish into a shipping canal needs to be applied to recovery of Puget Sound Chinook, said Donny Stevenson, vice chair of the Muckleshoot Tribe.

“If we can get that same level of … commitment, then we’re talking,” he said. “Then you have the ability to really make a difference. Until that point, it’s ultimately taking incremental steps.”

Chinook also are the most important prey for the endangered southern resident killer whales who frequent the Salish Sea.

The southern residents have their own culture: behaviors passed on intergenerationally, like language, hunting and gathering skills and food preferences. The eldest orcas have witnessed a sea of change, as shorelines hardened, green hues faded to gray, the salmon shrunk in size and fewer returned.

In 2005, the southern residents were listed as endangered. A recovery plan was finished in 2008. Generally, the orcas are struggling to survive in the face of at least three threats: lack of Chinook, pollution and underwater noise that makes it harder for them to hunt and communicate.

Deborah Giles, science and research director for the nonprofit Wild Orca, said the lack of prey, specifically Chinook, has had profound impacts on the immediate physiological health of the orcas as well as the social fabric of who they are.

With fewer Chinook, the southern residents are visiting the San Juan Islands, their traditional summer home, less often, corresponding with a 50% decline in available Chinook from the Fraser River.

Franklin’s bumble bee (Bombus franklini)

Officially nobody’s seen a Franklin’s bumble bee in years. Entomologists aren’t sure if they’ve all died out or if the remaining few are just difficult to find.

The species is particularly unique in that it only lives in a few small areas across Southern Oregon and Northern California. But the dangers that cut into Franklin’s bumble bee populations are quite similar to those threatening pollinators across the rest of the country.

Franklin’s are like other bumble bees in size and shape, said Sarina Jepsen, director of the Xerces Society’s Endangered Species and Aquatic Program. They’re mostly black except for yellow splotches on the top of their thorax and heads. Worker bees will also have a few yellowish hairs toward the bottom of the abdomen.

Worker bees spend their days out collecting nectar and pollen from plants and flowers. They drink the nectar (yes, bees have tongues) for energy and regurgitate some back at the nests, which are often underground, Jepsen said. Pollen collected serves as food for the young (larval) bees.

Throughout the process of collecting these foods the bees are also pollinating the flowers and plants they visit. About 85% of flowering plants rely on insects like bees, beetles, butterflies and moths for pollination, Jepsen said.

One renowned scientist — the late Robbin Thorp — surveyed Franklin’s bumble bee populations every year and noticed a decline in the early 2000s. By 2006 he found only one bee. Theories for their decline included climate change, invasive diseases or species, perhaps even a deadly type of fungus imported from Europe.

Jepsen and a group of other scientists petitioned the federal government to list the Franklin’s bumble bee as endangered in 2010, and in 2021 the species was listed.

Even if it’s too late for the Franklin’s, lessons learned from the species, funded in part by their listing, can be put to good use with other pollinators. Of the about 50 bumble bee species in the United States, about a quarter of them are in danger, Jepsen said.

Gray wolf (Canis lupus)

Few endangered animals, if any, provoke such a wide array of responses throughout the country.

To some, the predators represent the wilderness, the untamed spirit — in some cultures they’re even objects of worship. But to others, they’re a threat, a danger to people, pets and livestock.

Once, gray wolves roamed across much of the country, inhabiting around 38 states and much of Canada, said Adrian Treves, an environmental studies professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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“Right from the get-go in New England, people who were hunting for deer misperceived them as competitors,” Treves said.

So those early American settlers began killing the wolves, a tradition that lasted hundreds of years and expanded even further with a federal poisoning and “eradication” campaign, set in motion at the behest of livestock owners and hunters, Treves said.

By the early 1970s the country had wiped out all wolves in the Lower 48 states, except for a small population in northeast Minnesota, Treves said. Federal officials listed them as endangered in 1976, just three years after enacting the Endangered Species Act, and their numbers started to grow.

The wolves once more spread their roots in Minnesota and jumped to Wisconsin, and though a reintroduction attempt failed in Michigan, they migrated back into the state on their own, Treves said.

They can be found again across the American West as well, in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, among other places.

Gray wolves are a resilient species, Treves said. And they don’t tend to congregate in one place; rather, when a pack grows too large they’ll instinctively spread out.

But protections aren’t evenly spread, Treves said, in large part thanks to a lack of a national recovery plan from federal officials.

For example, wolves in the western two-thirds of Washington enjoy federal protections, but those in Eastern Washington do not. Other states still allow the wolves to be hunted, and politicians push back and forth on whether to keep the species listed as endangered.

While gray wolves serve as a political football, Treves noted that there is one piece of good news: If humans stop killing them, their numbers will rebound.

Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis)

Hardly picky with their habitat, grizzly bears used to roam all across western North America, as far south as Mexico, up through Canada and across the Great Plains. Now, in the contiguous 48 states, you can only find them if you know where to look.

The grizzly bear was one of the first species identified by the federal government as being threatened with extinction.

Six years before President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service included the grizzly on its list of species on the brink. The grizzly bear would later be classified as “threatened” in the contiguous 48 states.

The agency designated six “recovery zones,” which were thought to still contain bears in them, said Joe Scott, a grizzly specialist at Conservation Northwest. Those six zones consisted of areas around Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park, the North Cascades and three other regions around Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, northeast Washington and southeast British Columbia.

Reducing interactions between bears and humans has helped grizzlies recover so much in some ecosystems that states around Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park have petitioned to delist the bear in those zones. However, the bears are considered functionally extinct in both the North Cascades and the Bitterroot region between Montana and Idaho, making the two regions an unfulfilled promise of the ESA. The last grizzly sighting in the North Cascades was in 1996.

That could change soon. After a decade of fits and starts, in September, the U.S. Forest Service released a draft plan that outlined three options to restore a population starting with 25 bears in the North Cascades with a decision anticipated next year. The USFS is also intending to release a similar plan in 2026 on reintroducing bears into the Bitterroot system. Some tribes, such as the Upper Skagit, have advocated for the introduction of the bears, while other tribes have joined ranchers and other large landowners, who are concerned for their livestock.

The grizzly bears’ absence in the Cascades is an example of how, while the Endangered Species Act facilitates the process that can eventually reintroduce bears into an area, the law doesn’t dictate the speed at which those efforts happen or whether plans get scrapped or delayed, Scott said.