The Trump administration is about to implement new rules that it claims will “modernize” and “improve” the Endangered Species Act (ESA). All too predictably, certain industries in Trump’s favor approve of this imminent overhaul, while environmentalists are in an uproar.
Yet neither the Trump administration nor its most vociferous environmental critics is willing to address or even acknowledge the major threat to all imperiled wildlife in the United States: massive habitat loss associated with massive, unending U.S. population growth.
Degradation and loss of habitat is far and away the single most important cause of disappearing wildlife, much more than pollution, invasive species or poaching.
Propelled mostly by the largest immigration wave in American history, the number of Americans grew by about 60 million from 1990 to 2010, at a rate of 30 million per decade. Tens of millions more have been added this decade as well, and now there are almost 330 million of us, and counting.
American families have averaged fewer than two children for years, so that future population growth in our country will be almost entirely due to mass immigration.
Each added person – each new American consumer, whether native-born or foreign-born – is, on average, responsible for the loss of about half an acre of natural habitat or farmland. These lands are developed to meet our ever-rising demands for housing, transportation, commercial and office space, warehouses, factories and manufacturing, utilities, educational and government facilities, and so forth.
A 2019 study by Conservation Science Partners identified agriculture, energy, transportation and urban stressors as the major factors in loss and fragmentation of natural habitat in the lower 48 states. Population growth exacerbates each of these. More people require more land to grow more food, more habitat-destroying surface coal mines, wind and solar facilities, and the like.
The study concluded that expansion and intensification of land uses in the U.S. resulted in a steady, relentless loss of natural areas between 2001 and 2017. In these 16 years alone, more than 24 million acres of natural lands and habitats were permanently modified or lost to development.
We can appreciate just how substantial this loss is by comparing it to the areas of some of our largest, most beloved national parks, our “crown jewels.” The natural habitats lost in just 16 years were equivalent in size to almost nine Grand Canyon National Parks, more than 10 Yellowstone NPs, or 49 Great Smoky Mountains NPs.
More than 1.5 million acres were lost annually, on average. The urban stressor was responsible for 57 percent of all natural lands lost during the 16-year study period. Urban sprawl devours more natural habitat than all other major causes combined.
The ESA, signed into law by President Nixon in 1973, now lists 1,275 species and subspecies of plants and animals as endangered (at risk of extinction in the wild) and another 388 as threatened (at risk of becoming endangered). Being listed entitles a species to protections that substantially increase its prospects for survival. One measure is designating “critical habitat” deemed crucial for an imperiled population’s recovery.
The bald eagle, osprey, peregrine falcon, brown pelican, California condor, whooping crane, alligator, crocodile, manatee and many other species all owe their continued existence and recovery to the ESA.
Environmental conservation is obviously not a high priority for President Trump. Thus, it’s understandable that conservationists worry that the administration’s new rules will weaken important provisions of the ESA, like those on critical habitat designation.
What’s not understandable is how most contemporary environmentalists and reputed wildlife defenders acquiesce meekly to runaway, habitat-destroying U.S. population growth.
Around the first Earth Day in 1970, when there were 130 million fewer Americans, environmental scientists, activists and even politicians were outspoken and unequivocal on the threat posed by overpopulation. The Sierra Club’s legendary executive director David Brower spoke for the environmental movement when he said: “We feel you don’t have a conservation policy unless you have a population policy.”
President Nixon addressed Congress in 1968 about overpopulation, and his Rockefeller Commission recommended in 1973 that America halt population growth. Commissions reporting to Presidents Carter and Clinton also recommended U.S. population stabilization – and immigration control – to save our environment from ever-increasing stresses.
A strong ESA is crucial to saving endangered species, but it’s no silver bullet. If American conservationists continue to acquiesce to immigration-driven population growth – a U.S. with more than 400 million Americans by 2060, more than half a billion by 2100 – and the number of endangered species actually declines, it will not be because these creatures have been saved, but because they have vanished forever.