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Op-Ed: Would Biden’s nominee save rare wildlife from extinction?

Delta smelt
If Martha Williams, President Biden’s nominee to be the next director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is confirmed, she will have an opportunity to usher in an ambitious new era of conserving endangered species, such as the Delta smelt, shown.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

In the coming months, the Senate will vote on the nomination of Martha Williams to be the next director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that enforces the Endangered Species Act. If confirmed, Williams will be responsible for safeguarding the future of America’s imperiled flora and fauna.

That task is a monumental one. Scientists have warned that Earth is facing a “mass extinction event,” in which species are disappearing on a global scale. Deforestation, drilling, mining, urban sprawl, increased consumption and climate change, among other threats, are accelerating this trend.

A report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June 2020, called mass extinction the “most serious environmental threat to the persistence of civilization, because it is irreversible.” As many as 1 million species, from Siberian tigers to tiny Texas arachnids, face the prospect of extinction in decades to come.

Hearing the mourning dove again was a revelation, but with it came a realization: the wistful coo hadn’t been in the air for years.

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If she gets the job, Williams, who recently served as a senior Montana fish and wildlife official, will have to lead the fight to preserve species in this country against impending catastrophe. The agency, however, faces many internal and external obstacles.

There’s a large backlog of species that may warrant being listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The agency almost never deploys one of its most powerful regulatory tools — known as the “jeopardy opinion” — which enables it to force significant alterations or even block some bad developments that threaten to severely harm endangered species or their habitat. The agency has also consistently failed to develop up-to-date recovery plans for many of the species that are in its care.

The service, meanwhile, suffers from perennial underfunding, which has forced it in at least one recent case to accept financial payments from private developers to help cover staffing costs. Agency personnel have also reported declining morale and substantial political interference with their work in recent years.

Some of these problems can be laid at the feet of the Trump administration, which was hostile to endangered species protections. But mostly, these are bipartisan failures. Numerous former Fish and Wildlife staffers I’ve interviewed say that the agency is faltering in its mission — and at the worst possible moment.

Mike Phillips, a former veteran Fish and Wildlife employee and state senator from Montana, recently told me that the agency has for too long not acted with sufficient urgency and has apologized for its mission.

“It is hard for a team to believe in itself if its leaders don’t,” he added. “It just doesn’t work. They need inspired leadership.”

Conservationists and tribal leaders are suing the U.S. government to block construction of two geothermal plants in northern Nevada’s high desert.

Williams would have an opportunity to rejuvenate the agency and introduce an ambitious new era of endangered species conservation. She should lift up the agency’s civil servants who are willing to make hard decisions that benefit our country’s imperiled plants and animals — and reassign senior officials who consistently fail to show courage in the face of controversy.

Fish and Wildlife Service leadership should no longer be allowed to stand by and let species such as California’s delta smelt or the red wolf collapse in the wild. No longer should the agency let huge swaths of important habitat get chewed up by developers, as it has in the case of the endangered Florida panther in recent decades. No longer should the agency engage in interminable delay tactics when imperiled animals such as the greater sage grouse, found in California and the American West, deserve legal protection.

Most of the problems at the agency stem from years of weak leadership and poor policy choices, which could be fixed by a new administration. With Williams at the helm, the agency must reform regulations and practices so that it can aggressively use tools such as the jeopardy opinion to prevent further habitat degradation. Williams should remove bureaucratic hurdles, eliminate the listing backlog, and develop up-to-date recovery plans for every plant and animal under the agency’s jurisdiction. She also needs to refuse payments from private developers and shield the professional staff from undue political influence.

These changes would be a huge step forward and Williams could undertake all of them administratively before Biden’s first term is out. Of course, support from Congress through more funding would also help immensely.

Americans are enthusiastic about endangered species programs. A 2018 survey by Ohio State University found that approximately 83% of the American public supports the endangered species law, including 74% of conservatives surveyed. A strong and functioning Fish and Wildlife Service is essential if we are to confront the extinction crisis and stave off the loss of species — losses that can never be recovered.

Jimmy Tobias, an environmental reporter, is a contributor at the Nation and a contributing writer at the Guardian.


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