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Commentary: H.B. shorebirds showcase Endangered Species Act success

Concerns about the Western snowy plover, pictured, and the California least tern have delayed an Ora
The Western snowy plover.
(Photo courtesy of Sea & Sage Audubon)

Visitors to Huntington State Beach may not realize it, but they could be witnessing an incredible recovery story taking wing just past the fringes of their towels.

For the first time in 50 years, Western snowy plovers have successfully nested and fledged chicks at this beloved California beach.

These shorebirds look like tiny, two-legged tufts of feathers. Their numbers were falling fast, mainly because of people and development disturbing their nests, which are built right on beaches.

As a biologist I was overjoyed to see these birds saved from the edge of extinction by America’s Endangered Species Act. But now this bedrock environmental law itself may need saving — from the Trump administration.


Before talking about Trump’s attack on this crucial conservation measure, it’s important to understand how it saved the plovers.

The birds first gained Endangered Species Act protection in 1993. The designation activated efforts by agencies all along the West Coast to locate and protect nests.

Thanks to those efforts, throughout California, Washington and Oregon, the Western snowy plover population leapt from about 1,500 birds when first protected to almost 3,000 in 2015. Now Huntington State Beach is again home to these adorable birds.

This is nothing short of amazing on such a heavily used public beach. Such success is proof that recovery efforts, when done right, can work for any species anywhere. And the plovers’ amazing recovery is not an exception to the Endangered Species Act but the rule. The act has saved more than 99% of species under its protection from extinction and put hundreds more on the road to recovery, including the plovers.


Here in Southern California, for instance, we’ve watched the El Segundo blue butterfly bounce back from the brink. Found in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties, and nowhere else on Earth, the butterfly lost approximately 90% of its ocean-side habitat to construction of Los Angeles International Airport and a housing development.

The butterfly’s population declined to about 500. But it was protected under the act and then saved from extinction by restoration efforts, which by 2011 had steadily increased the population at the Airport Dunes to 123,000 — an astounding 22,000% population increase.

Yet now anti-wildlife politicians in Congress and the Trump administration are working to dismantle the lifesaving Endangered Species Act. In just this 115th Congress, 112 legislative attacks on the act have been introduced, including nine by Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona). Some bills target specific species like wolves. Others would eliminate court access for everyday Americans who want to hold their government accountable when it breaks the law.

Even worse, bills to fully repeal or gut the act are expected in the near future. With a pro-polluter administration in the White House, these legislative blitzes could succeed in irreversibly damaging our nation’s imperiled wildlife.

And the Trump administration itself recently unveiled plans to radically weaken regulations that implement the law. Among other things, these proposals would ensure that hundreds of imperiled species awaiting protection — like the monarch butterfly wolverine — either never get safeguards or face extinction-threatening delays.

But opinion polls are clear: A majority of Americans wants to prevent endangered wildlife like snowy plovers from sliding into extinction. We know the Endangered Species Act works. And we’ll fight to protect it from the right-wing politicians who want to condemn our most successful conservation law — and the imperiled plants and animals it protects — to oblivion.

Ileene Anderson is a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity in Los Angeles.