During my two terms as governor of New Mexico, I often found myself in the middle of challenging discussions involving a wide range of my constituents about what was necessary to protect the state’s most imperiled plants and animals.
For me, those discussions always began with one question: What does the best available science suggest we should do?
What I found is that when we let the science lead, we end up in a good place. And that’s exactly how Congress envisioned it when it passed the Endangered Species Act 40 years ago this year.
Now, during the month Americans all over the country are celebrating Endangered Species Day, which falls each year on May 17, is a good time to stop and acknowledge what the Act has accomplished in its first four decades.
And when it comes to protecting wildlife from extinction, we don’t have to look far to see its power right here in New Mexico.
The population of Gila trout grew from about 7,600 fish in 1975 to 37,000 in 2008 and has been downlisted to “threatened” status.
Aplomado falcons, once completely extirpated from the United States, now have populations in New Mexico and Texas.
And Mexican gray wolves, once completely eliminated from the Southwest, now total 75 in New Mexico and Arizona.
To date, the Act has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the more than 1,400 species placed under its care. Many of those species are now meeting or exceeding goals for recovery – a record all Americans should be proud of.
When you look back across the many successes of the Act’s first four decades – from bald eagles and grizzlies to California condors and gray wolves – it’s easy to forget that recovering plants and animals from the brink of extinction has never been easy – but it’s always been worth the effort.
That conviction continues to be at the heart of my current work as a board member for the National Council for Science and the Environment, a prestigious group of scientists and environmental leaders working to more closely align the decisions of top policymakers with the conclusions of science.
And nowhere are the impacts of that bond more important than in how we administer the Endangered Species Act.
Here in the 21st century, if we’re going to embrace the challenge of slowing extinctions and habitat destruction, we have no choice but to let science inform our most critical political decisions regarding the protection of our wildlife.
If we do that, the Endangered Species Act can be even more successful over the next 40 years in helping us to save our most imperiled plants and animals and the planet we all share with them.