As humans and builders of nations, we tend to use the flora and fauna within our borders as national symbols, often with pride. After all, one could debate all day as to what is truly “Australian”—be it the native people, the introduced culture or what was created within the country—but few would disagree that the native Kangaroos represent the continent. It’s why the large marsupial appears as the Royal Australian Air Force’s roundel. The trend continues: Canada has the maple leaf, Indonesia has the Komodo dragon, Lebanon has a namesake cedar, Wyoming has the American Bison. It’d be tough to imagine these territories without their endemic sources of pride and identity, but humans seem to have a trend of selecting symbols that are easily threatened by our activities.
Such was the case with Haliaeetus leucocephalus, better known as the bald eagle. Again, though it is strongly associated with the United States, its symbolic statushas existed since the Native American tribes appeared on the continent centuries ago. The bald eagle is inseparable from American culture, but once upon a time, we almost lost it.
A variety of factors—from inadvertently thinning of eagles’ egg shells to illegal hunting—led to the national bird’s decline in the 20th century. As early as 1930, Popular Science was decrying that the bald eagle was nearing extinction, claiming that the noble raptor would soon “be seen only on coins and the coat of arms of the United States.”
But the bald eagle bounced back, going from a species listed as endangered in 1978 to threatened in 1995 to being completely de-listed in 2007. Often credited for its dramatic and quick comeback is, among similar laws, the 1973 Endangered Species Act passed by Richard Nixon. As briefly summarized by the Supreme Court of the United States in Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill, the “The plain intent of Congress in enacting [the Endangered Species Act] was to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost.”
Unsurprisingly, the act and its fallout bills have long been criticized by fiscal conservatives, proponents of unbridled industrial deregulation and opponents of science-based governance hiding behind the thin veil of states’ rights and job creation. The current political climate may prove a death knell for the Endangered Species Act: recent deliberations in the Senate and House—along with President Trump’s proposed, EPA-gutting budget—have brought long-held hatred of the law into light. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop wishes to eliminate the act entirely, wrongly claiming “it has never been used for the rehabilitation of species. On the contrary, the act has so far saved iconic American species including, but not limited to, the American alligator, the black-footed ferret, the grizzly bear, the Florida manatee and, of course, the bald eagle. While it’s true that the act has only saved 1 percent of its listed species, the act is still young. Recovery efforts aren’t quick, and the Endangered Species Act has an impressive track record so far. But these attempts to attack the act on the basis of science gets it wrong. The scientific defense of the act is sound, and opponents are merely using it in place of typical moral arguments: that it infringes on land owners’ rights.
It’s clear that typical scientific arguments are ineffective against lawmakers who refuse to believe evidence-based research that contradict their firmly-held worldviews, be it climate change, vaccination, agricultural practices or stem cell research. This is an issue across the board: for every Republican falsely claiming that climate change is a hoax, there is a Democrat falsely claiming that genetic modification of food is harmful.
Economic arguments won’t work, either. Those firmly entrenched in the idea that a deregulated free market are unwilling to entertain the idea that ecological factors affect the economy, or at least that the federal government is responsible for determining said effects and guarding us against them.
Therefore, I offer a simple defense of the Endangered Species Act that all American flag pin-wearing lawmakers can get behind: patriotism. As mentioned above, natural flora and fauna are frequently used in national symbols, as they should be. You’d be hard-pressed to find a lawmaker that isn’t abhorrent of the burning of the American flag, but it seems that treating the national bird, one that appears on our great seal, as a pest to eliminate on your land is not only permissible but encouraged for some.
“Eagles don’t pay taxes; I pay taxes,” said a disgruntled Minnesota resident in a CNN article when the bald eagle’s then-threatened listing restricted him from building log cabins on an untouched property containing a habitat. Could you imagine the outcry if similar rhetoric was used against welfare programs for veterans living in poverty?
In a similar vein, could you imagine Florida without the American alligator? What would it say about our values if we rightly emblazon the iconic reptile on institutional logos where is lives (the University of Florida, for example) but treat it like dirt in response? Unfortunately, such has been the case. Though the American alligator has recovered to the point that is can once again be hunted, modifications to their habitats continue to pose a threat and could endanger them once again should regulations be lifted.
It’s true that environmental regulations are difficult to navigate sometimes. Ecological research isn’t easy and hardly turns a profit. It’s not the job of our industries to do ecological research, either. It’s why we have the EPA and laws like the Endangered Species Act to determine a balance between economic development and maintenance of the land it happens on. The Endangered Species Act could be overhauled, yes. Some argue it needs more resources, some argue that the exotic pet trade exploits it. Loopholes, such as “shoot, shovel and shut up” in which protected species on land are buried to dodge regulations, need to be closed. But the preservation of our diverse American culture, one that includes the flora and fauna unique to our land, must be paramount. That, I hope, is something that even the stiffest conservative can get behind if love for country is what truly guides them.