Act of Inspiration
Photographs by Joel Sartore
In the head-high jack pines and low thickets of blueberry and sweet fern that carpet Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the rolling song of a Kirtland’s warbler wooing his mate can still be heard.
The rarest songbird in America, these tiny blue-gray and yellow warblers migrate from the Bahamas, arriving in the Great Lakes region each May to nest, breed and molt before returning south. A jack-pine forest isn’t the loveliest of landscapes, but it’s one of the few places where the finicky birds will breed—which alone makes this habitat special.
Like many rare species, the Kirtland’s warbler faces multiple threats, including a loss of habitat, an influx of parasitic cowbirds and the degradation of nesting areas after suppression of natural fires. By the 1960s, the bird’s population had reached critical levels and in the 1980s dipped below 400. But over the past two decades, The Nature Conservancy has worked together with state, federal and international government agencies to protect and restore the forests that provide habitat for the bird. Today, its population has climbed to 5,000, and its North American range has widened from a desperate holdout in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula to include forests in Wisconsin and Ontario.
Such a recovery was possible only with the help of the Endangered Species Act, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in December. Previous laws offered limited protections to certain animals, but the Endangered Species Act became arguably the most powerful environmental law in U.S. history by making it illegal to harm or kill endangered plants and animals, whether directly or by
destroying their habitats.
“In the 1960s and early ’70s, biodiversity loss was already taking place,” says Chris Pague, a senior conservation ecologist for the Conservancy in Colorado. “Bald eagles and ospreys were disappearing along with many more species that had died off. There was a public outcry at this serious realization. When the law was enacted, it said we had to stop extinction; we had to stop losing entire species forever.”
More than 2,100 plants and animals have been on the Endangered Species List, requiring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to enforce their protection. The law calls on federal agencies, states, landowners and private developers to tread more carefully. For example, military bases must account for the endangered and threatened species within their forests. Ranchers are charged with protecting rare field animals that used to be treated as nuisances. And whether planning a dam, pipeline or any other major construction project, builders can no longer punch through landscapes without considering the rare plants and animals depending on them for survival.
“The Endangered Species Act has already dealt with all the [relatively] easy endangered species,” says Pague, citing the peregrine falcon. It almost went extinct in the lower 48 states but rebounded once harmful factors were identified and addressed, such as placing bans on the production of pesticides like DDT. “Now, [conservation efforts] are at the stage of trying to list animals and plants that may still number in the thousands or millions across a dozen states, but their populations are more than 90 percent depleted,” says Pague. “Now it’s getting complicated.”
Still, recent efforts are yielding promising results. In nine states in the South, the Conservancy is partnering with numerous organizations, including the Department of Defense, to protect and restore up to 8 million acres of longleaf pine forest—habitat that supports more than 30 endangered or threatened species. On California’s Santa Cruz Island, the Conservancy helped lead the relocation of golden eagles and the removal of feral sheep and pigs to restore populations of the endangered island fox. With a captive breeding program, the effort helped restore the fox from fewer than 100 to more than 1,200 in 10 years, making it one of the fastest endangered species recoveries to date. And in the case of the Kirtland’s warbler, the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering its removal from the Endangered Species List altogether.
“You have to address the threats on the landscape, and you have to heal the land before the species can return to it,” says Troy Ettel, the Conservancy’s director of longleaf pine whole systems. “Otherwise, you haven’t saved the species. You’ve just put them back onto a landscape where they’re doomed.”
Since being signed into law, the Endangered Species Act has kept 99 percent of its endangered plants and animals from extinction, with the vast majority recovering at their originally predicted rates. These threatened species are being pulled back from the brink and are once again becoming part of the American wilderness.