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The Endangered Species Act turns 50 years old today

In an era where the fragility of our natural environment is more apparent than ever, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) stands as a critical piece of legislation. But as we move further into the 21st century, the question arises: how can this act evolve to effectively combat the growing threats to biodiversity

Experts are now turning to a blend of technology, economics, and human intervention to reshape the conservation landscape. 

Professor Tanya Berger-Wolf and Amy Ando of The Ohio State University are at the forefront of integrating technology and economics into conservation efforts.

The researchers shared their insights in the journal Science, offering a fresh perspective on the future of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and its implementation.

Bridging technology and nature

Tanya Berger-Wolf, faculty director of Ohio State’s Translational Data Analytics Institute, emphasized the importance of a “Sustainable, trustworthy, human-technology partnership.” 

“We are in the middle of a mass extinction without even knowing all that we are losing and how fast,” said Berger-Wolf. However, she also pointed out the potential of technology to change this narrative.

New tools

New technological tools, such as camera traps and smartphone apps, are enabling large-scale monitoring of animal and plant populations. These tools empower scientists and citizen scientists to contribute to data collection on biodiversity that benefits the Endangered Species Act.

“But even with all this data, we are still monitoring only a tiny fraction of the biodiversity out in the world,” said Berger-Wolf. “Without that information, we don’t know what we have, how different species are doing and whether our policies to protect endangered species are working.”

Bonding with nature

Berger-Wolf warned against an over-reliance on technology alone. She advocates for maintaining a strong connection between people and nature. “We don’t want to sever the connection between people and nature, we want to strengthen it.” 

Berger-Wolf emphasized the need for a conscious partnership between humans, technology, and AI in the quest to preserve biodiversity.

The role of economics 

Amy Ando, professor and chair of the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics at Ohio State, focused on “Harnessing economics for effective implementation.” 

Professor Ando noted that while biology and ecology are crucial, economics plays a significant role in the successful implementation of the Endangered Species Act. 

Sweeping changes 

“Though the ESA precludes the use of economic analysis in making listing decisions, insights and tools from economics have helped to make management and policy related to the ESA more successful and trigger sweeping changes in many human behaviors including logging, development, and water use,” wrote Ando. 

“For example, economics research has informed efforts to reduce perverse habitat destruction incentives created by the original ESA and helped to quantify the impacts, costs, and benefits of ESA protections.”

Bioeconomic research 

Bioeconomic research, a collaboration between economists and biologists, examines how human behavior affects ecological systems and vice versa.

Professor Ando described innovative approaches like “pop-up” habitat modification, which involves temporary actions like removing fences during elk migration or flooding rice fields for shorebirds. These actions, optimized through economic principles, can provide significant benefits to both society and the environment.

Proactive policies 

Furthermore, Ando highlighted the importance of proactive policies that protect species before they require ESA protection. This involves navigating complex scenarios where multiple landowners must coordinate their efforts to protect habitats. 

According to Professor Ando, economists are exploring ways to achieve this coordination without imposing heavy regulations, thus reducing the cost of conservation while effectively protecting species.

A multidisciplinary approach 

The insights from Berger-Wolf and Ando underscore the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to conservation. By integrating technology and economics into the framework of the ESA, we can develop more effective strategies to protect our planet’s biodiversity. 

It’s a reminder that saving endangered species is not just a matter of ecological concern, but a complex challenge that requires technology, economics, and human engagement to be effectively solved.

The Endangered Species Act 

“The Endangered Species Act was signed into law on Dec. 28 in 1973. It’s appropriate that it happened in the midst of the winter holiday season because it’s one of the best gifts we’ve ever given ourselves. It’s our nation’s most effective law to protect at-risk animals and plants from extinction both nationally and abroad,” wrote the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF).

“Currently, under the Endangered Species Act, more than 1,670 species native to the United States and 698 species in other countries are safeguarded to increase their chances of survival. And it’s had a stellar success rate so far with 99% of species listed still with us – dodging extinction and many species making the slow march toward recovery.” 

“Scientists estimate that hundreds of species have been rescued from the brink of extinction in the United States since the Endangered Species Act went into effect. Fifty years later, we’re reflecting on the success of our bedrock conservation law – and continuing to work together to ensure that it protects the world’s most vulnerable species for another 50 years (and more!).”


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