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The anniversary of a federal act of empathy

Published December 31, 2013 3:36 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The year 2013 has drawn to a close, and I doubt if one of the most significant events in Utah found itself on anyone's year-end list of consequence.

A small wildflower that grows in the Kaibab Formation in Washington County known as a Gierisch mallow (Spaheralcea gierischii) has finally been granted protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

This vibrant orange crepe-petaled flower with yellow stamens can be seen squeezed between Interstate 15 and the Virgin River.

Some may say, "So what?" But if we look at the success story behind the 40th anniversary of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, we may be impressed by what a single law with vision can do.

Birds like the bald eagle and California condor were on the path of extinction in the 1960s due to pesticides such as DDT. The gray wolf was listed as an endangered species in 1967, having been shot, poisoned, and trapped to near extinction. In 1995, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park. Sixteen years later, given their ability to repopulate, the gray wolf was delisted in 2011.

And then, there is the Utah prairie dog. Call them America's meercats. These communal creatures declined to perilous numbers due to the politics of livestock and an aggressive poison campaign, alongside plague and drought. In 1972, only 3,300 Utah prairie dogs remained. But today, the Utah prairie dog population is close to 12,000. In some instances, their habitat is being restored by the very ranchers who opposed them decades earlier. Utah prairie dogs stand outside their burrows as a small beacon of hope.

The 1973 Endangered Species Act has been more than 99 percent successful at preventing extinction of species under its watch.

On Dec. 28, 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act into law. The vote in the Senate was 92 in favor, 0 opposed; in the House, it was 355 to 4. This seems like an astonishment, bordering on the impossible, given the rancor and rigidity of Congress today with the ongoing pressures from special interests to undermine and exterminate the Endangered Species Act, itself.

A journalist from Washington, D.C., recently asked me, "Who is the most powerful individual in the American West right now?"

"Sage grouse," I answered.

"I'm serious." he said.

"So am I," I replied.

In the Interior West, sage grouse are driving the conversation around oil and gas development. The Bureau of Land Management projections show that nearly 96,000 new oil and gas wells will be drilled over the next twenty years in six states: Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. Oil wells could fragment 11.8 million acres of sagebrush habitat, an area larger than the state of New Hampshire. Development, as planned, could affect the greater sage grouse populations by 19 percent.

Historic populations of sage grouse once numbered 16 million. Today, the population may be half a million with local populations in the vicinity of oil fields being drawn down to extinction.

One male sage grouse standing his ground on his ancestral lek against Shell Oil is a kin to the lone man facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square.

Sage grouse are the latest bellwether species sounding the call for restraint on America's public lands. Slowly but surely, the sage grouse is finding its way toward protection.

Threatened species such as the willow flycatcher and wound-fin minnow have now become measures of the health of the Colorado River.

The beauty of the Endangered Species Act is that it is a federal act of empathy. It proceeds our Declaration of Independence and portends a Declaration of Interdependence. It gives us an opportunity to exercise our conscience and consciousness on behalf of all species.

The great consequence of the Endangered Species Act, over time, is that it ensures that we, as a species, will not be alone. Each time I hear the driving drumbeat of the sage grouse's ancient courtship dance among the aromatic splendor of sage, I remember that we are the heirs of wonder.

Terry Tempest Williams is the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah.