Looking back and looking forward, the Endangered Species Act turns 50: How did it do?

June 13, 2023

In May, environmentalists celebrated the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. And while it has served as a model of conservation policy to other countries, it has not had as many notable successes in terms of species recovery as many conservationists had hoped. From 1973 to 2021, more than 1,000 species were listed by the ESA, but only 54 have recovered to the point where they no longer need protection.

Species tend to reach dangerously low populations before they’re identified as being endangered, a problem that ecologist David Wilcove first flagged in 1993 and that he highlighted again last year in a study with fellow Princeton ecologist Andy Dobson. In the new research, Wilcove and Dobson identify additional problems that plague the act including bureaucratic delays, insufficient funding and failure to recruit allies in conservation efforts.

Wilcove studies migratory birds and endangered species, and Dobson has worked on conservation of elephants, bison, wolves and elk. Other Princeton experts, including Rob Pringle, Bridgett vonHoldt, Stephen Gaughran, and Dan Rubenstein are also well-positioned to offer insights on efforts to protect endangered species around the world.

Rob Pringle is at the heart of a multi-year effort to rebuild an ecosystem in Mozambique devastated by civil war. He and his team are studying how the recovery of large herbivores and carnivores — including endangered elephants, leopards, and African wild dogs — is revitalizing a massive nature preserve.

Bridgett vonHoldt is involved in multiple efforts to protect endangered red and grey wolves.

Stephen Gaughran is building a genetic library of extinct and endangered marine mammals, including seals. (Gaughran was also behind last year’s discovery that Fernandina Island tortoises are not extinct, as previously thought.)

Dan Rubenstein monitors and protects Kenya’s Grevy’s Zebra by working with pastoralist communities and organizing public zebra-counting events to monitor how changes in human actions alter their population dynamics.

To read more, visit The Charge, May 2023 edition.

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