Baby bird

A newly hatched Attwater’s prairie chicken

By Melissa Gaskill
Texas Climate News

Nearly 80 percent of Americans support the Endangered Species Act today, according to a paper published recently in Conservation Letters, a journal of the Society for Conservation Biology.

Using data from recent polls and a 2014 survey, the authors found that support remains consistent across a broad range of special interests, including ranchers and hunters. In fact, given that federal officials say it has saved more than 99 percent of listed species from extinction, the ESA is one of the country’s most successful pieces of legislation.

Enacted by Congress in 1973, the ESA passed with widespread bipartisan support. Critics often portray it as ineffective, costly and controversial and, especially in recent years, claim it has declining public support. But surveys measure “strong support for the ESA, which has persisted for at least the past two decades and transcends political ideology,” the paper’s authors discovered.

“Indeed,” they wrote, “we found less than 10 percent of the population expressed opposition to the Act. These data do not support the assertion that the ESA is controversial; rather, they support the opposite conclusion.”

And yet, recent years have seen a constant stream of proposals to weaken this legislation – more than 150 proposals between 2016 and 2017, and dozens of bills, amendments, and policy initiatives in July alone. It represents an “attack [on the law] from lawmakers, the White House and industry on a scale not seen in decades,” the New York Times reported.

For example, changes to the law recently proposed by the Trump administration include a provision that could allow considering the economic consequences of protection when deciding whether or not a species merits listing to receive the act’s protection (an approach specifically avoided by the act now in favor of science-based decision-making). It would remove existing protections against “takings” for newly listed threatened species.

Other, earlier examples, according to the Conservation Letters paper, include amendments and riders added to spending bills and budget resolutions to block listing of the greater sage grouse and remove protections for gray wolves.

While such efforts mostly have failed so far, the paper notes that administrative rule-making already has “meaningfully revised” the ESA, including recent adoption of a new policy for interpreting the phrase “significant portion of its range,” which refers to a listed species’ habitat.

Weakened ESA protection would particularly affect endangered species in Texas that already face uncertain futures due to the effects of climate change, including these five:

Kemp’s ridley sea turtles

Officially listed under the ESA as Endangered in 1970. The smallest of five sea turtle species found in the Gulf of Mexico, the Kemp’s ridley is also one of the most endangered. Adults live mainly in the Gulf, although immature turtles often appear along the Atlantic coast. This species nests primarily on a few beaches in northeast Mexico and on the Texas coast.

Rising sea levels caused by climate change threaten to inundate nesting beaches.  Because nest temperature during incubation determines the sex of sea turtle hatchlings, higher temperatures skew sex ratios, creating significantly more females than males. These changes could eventually affect reproduction rates. If nest temperatures rise high enough, hatchlings will not survive.

Whooping cranes

Listed as endangered in 1967. A combination of hunting and habitat loss drove this species nearly to extinction in the 1940s. North America’s tallest bird at up to 5 feet, the whooping crane sports snowy white feathers with black on the upper leading end of the wing and side of the head. One self-sustaining wild population nests in Wood Buffalo National Park and adjacent areas in Canada, and winters in coastal marshes in Texas around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The population currently numbers approximately 430.

According to the whooping crane recovery plan, freshwater inflows primarily from the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers are essential to maintain healthy salinity levels and produce food and drinking water for the cranes. Spring flows from the Edwards Aquifer can make up to 70 percent of Guadalupe River water. As climate change worsens droughts, predictions show drought periods increasing by 250 percent and years with low freshwater pulses in the spring increasing 26 percent.

This represents a serious threat to the birds, as a simple inverse relationship exists between the catch rates of blue crab – their primary food – and salinity levels in the estuary.

Houston toad

Listed as endangered in 1970. The toad’s current range occurs within an area roughly between Houston and San Antonio to the east and west, and Victoria and Waco north and south. This species needs sandy soil and wooded areas with an open understory of native bunch grasses and still or flowing waters for breeding. Serious threats to its survival include habitat loss and alteration, especially of the temporary ponds and wetlands it uses as breeding sites. Drought also causes loss or reduction of breeding sites and increased danger of wildfires.

By 2010, drought conditions had significantly reduced toad numbers, and the 2011 Bastrop fires caused a further, short-term decrease in the population. Fire reduces cover, leaving the toads more vulnerable to predation. However, live toads were found in burned areas several years post-fire and biologists say long-term effects depend on microclimate factors such as wind, humidity and soil conditions.

According to a study recently published in Science Advances, temperatures during droughts have risen faster than in average climates in recent decades, suggesting a greater number of droughts and heat waves in the future – bad news for the toads.

Attwater’s prairie chicken

Listed as endangered since 1967. As many as a million of these birds once inhabited coastal prairies of Louisiana and Texas. But they had disappeared in Louisiana by 1919, and in 1937 only about 8,700 remained in Texas. This small grouse is known for its mating ritual, when males congregate morning and evening from February through mid-May on leks, or small open areas. The birds inflate and then deflate air sacs to produce a low booming sound, while stomping their feet, jumping, and charging at other males.

Hurricane Harvey’s high winds and torrential downpours killed many of the birds on the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge: of 29 individual birds tracked by Refuge staff prior to the storm, only five survived. The storm also killed a significant portion of a population on private property in Goliad County. Several studies have found that climate change worsened Harvey’s catastrophic rainfall and could make future storms more destructive as well.

Comanche Springs pupfish

Listed as endangered in 1967. The West Texas spring from which this fish gets its name dried up in the 1950s and the population inhabiting it became extinct. The pupfish also inhabited a second area of the Pecos River drainage about 90 miles away, and still resides in springs around Balmorhea. This and other large springs in west Texas face risk of drying up as more water is pumped from the ground than is replaced by rainfall.

Climate models generally project more extreme and severe weather worldwide. Some evidence suggests that El Niño and La Niña events may become more frequent and more severe, leading to more frequent and severe droughts in Texas, according to Bruce McCarl, a climate expert on the Texas A&M University faculty. The fourth National Climate Assessment also projects longer dry spells for large parts of Texas, including west Texas.


Melissa Gaskill, an independent journalist based in Austin, is a contributing editor of Texas Climate News.

Image credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service