Florida residents experience the impact of the Endangered Species Act all around them: The sea turtles that nest on local beaches. The manatees that charm visitors to state parks in the winter. The wood storks that have become an increasingly common sight along local roadsides.
These species, and many others, were once considered potentially doomed. But decades of protection have turned things around. Sea-turtle nestings on local beaches have more than doubled from lows in the early 2000s. Florida's manatee counts have topped 6,000 for the last three years -- once, the population was thought to number just a few hundred. The number of wood storks in the southeastern United States was once declining at the rate of 5 percent a year, and scientists grimly predicted the species was headed for extinction. Now pairs of storks are visible throughout Volusia and Flagler counties, wading in roadside ditches and shallow lakes.
These are success stories, but the stories are not finished yet. Every day, birds, plants, fish and animals face competition for the resources they need to survive from the ever-increasing number of people who want to make Florida their home. The federal Endangered Species Act and the state's species-protection programs have nurtured these, and many other species: As The Daytona Beach News-Journal's Dinah Voyles Pulver reported, the state is home to 93 species considered endangered under the federal rules, and another 44 that are threatened.
Endangered species are considered in danger of extinction; the threatened status -- which the manatee was recently elevated to -- includes species that are likely to become endangered in the future.
There's little doubt, however, that the Endangered Species Act has levied a considerable cost for the protections it guarantees. The battles over preservation generally involve creatures that most people agree should be protected. But the history of the Endangered Species Act includes some episodes where the case was not nearly as clear -- such as the controversy over an undeniably endangered Mississippi frog that was "rebranded" as being from Louisiana, leading to a debate as to whether federal officials could designate private property as critical habitat for a species that hadn't been found in that area in more than 50 years, and might not survive there.
The Trump administration says it wants to revamp and streamline the Endangered Species Act, leading to cries of alarm from environmental groups. That pushback is a good thing -- conservation-minded groups should keep a close eye on the proceedings and call foul if endangered-species protections will be legitimately weakened.
At the same time, however, these groups should acknowledge that, after four and half decades, the Endangered Species Act might benefit from an overhaul that whittles unnecessary regulation.
If environmental groups work with federal officials in good faith, they might just produce a law that both sides can agree is an improvement.