By Published: Jan. 23, 2024

Dan Doak, a CU Boulder professor of environmental studies who has studied threatened and endangered species for decades, reflects on a half century of species protection

Dec. 27, 2023, marked the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a piece of legislation with which Dan Doak, a University of Colorado Boulder professor of environmental studies, is intimately familiar, and has been for some time.  

“My Endangered Species Act work goes back to when I was a grad student,” he says, when he was working to protect the northern spotted owl, whose habitat of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest was being destroyed by logging. 

While doing this work, Doak discovered that, thanks to his mathematical skills, he had a knack for making questions of endangerment, the language of which he says can sometimes be a bit “wishy-washy,” more concrete. He’s been doing similar work ever since and has thus developed a deep understanding of the ESA and its effectiveness. 

Dan Doak conducting field research

Dan Doak, a CU Boulder professor of environmental studies, conducts field research. For much of his career, Doak has worked to make questions of species endangerment more concrete.

Doak defines the ESA as “one of a series of laws that say species have a right to not go extinct—at least in the hands of people.”   

That last part, he says—the part about human involvement—is especially important.  

“Humans have caused much more extinction than is natural. If we weren’t around, rates of extinction would be far, far lower.”  

He points to the California condor, North America’s largest vulture, as an example. Though the number of condors is now more than 400, in 1987 the species was nearing extinction, with a mere 22 in existence.

“We shot them. We also shot other animals”—that is, the condors’ food—“with lead bullets, which caused lead poisoning in the condors.”

Doak explains that the ESA divides endangerment into two categories: “threatened” and “endangered,” with the latter being the more serious. Yet he admits that the criteria for these categories can be tough to pin down. 

“The law is written by lawyers to be interpretable by judges and lawyers,” he says. “But it’s about a biological idea—how endangered is something—which is really a question of how likely it is to go extinct over some amount of time.”  

Consider the grizzly bear

Perhaps no species better exemplifies this conflict between law and biology than the grizzly bear.

When the grizzly bear landed on the endangered species list in 1975, Doak says, environmental groups and the government disagreed about how many bears there should be for how many years before that species could be considered safe.  

“The government wanted there to be around 300 bears,” Doak recalls, whereas the environmental groups wanted 1,000. And while the government wanted the population to remain stable for a couple decades, the environmental groups pushed for a much longer timescale.  

California condor

The California condor was once on the brink of extinction. (Photo: Brad Quicksall/National Park Service)

“I can’t remember the exact number of years,” Doak says, “but it was longer than the United States had been in existence.”  

The trick in such deliberations, says Doak, is for the parties involved to come up with a solution that minimizes a species’ risk of extinction without veering into the excessive. It’s a tricky balance to strike.  

One may therefore be forgiven for assuming that getting the ESA passed back in 1973 was a major political challenge. But one would be wrong.  

“It wasn’t controversial when it was passed,” says Doak.  

“This was a time when Nixon was going to sign the Clean Air Act and set up the Environmental Protection Agency with widespread Republican as well as Democratic support. It was a time when, if you flew into LA, you couldn’t see the ground because of the incredible air pollution. And so there was widespread support for the ESA.”  

Doak says that the ESA is more controversial now than it was in its infancy. “There is a perception that it never works and that we’re not accomplishing anything other than inconveniencing people.”  

Yet this perception is based more in imagination than in reality, Doak argues.  

“There are lots of species that clearly would be extinct right now if the Endangered Species Act didn’t work.”  

Balancing ideal and reasonable

One threatened animal Doak himself has helped to protect is the desert tortoise.  
“They were declining very rapidly, but the attention the Endangered Species Act put on them led, in part, to the creation of a new national preserve, Mojave National Preserve, and to better understanding about some of the impacts humans have had on desert ecosystems and the plants and animals there. And so, while the tortoises are still on the threatened list, we’ve taken multiple actions to preserve them from going extinct.”  

And that’s not the only success story, says Doak. Channel Island foxes, ospreys, bald eagles, pelicans; these once-threatened or endangered species have become daily common in recent decades, and that could not have happened without the ESA. 

Doak says that there are now two challenges facing those involved in species protection. One is how to distinguish between what is ideal and what is reasonable.  

Returning to the grizzly bear, while it may be ideal to once again have a high population density of that species in California, where—despite being extinct there—it’s the state animal, it may not be reasonable, given the Golden State’s huge numbers of humans.

We have to plan for protecting species and habitats as well as our own lives.”

The second challenge, Doak says, is climate change.  

A changing climate means changing habitats, and if species’ habitats change, keeping those species alive becomes a lot more complicated, as Doak illustrates with the help of a rare type of buckwheat that grows in the foothills of the Rockies.   

This buckwheat “seems to be naturally rare, and probably that’s because it’s really sensitive to climate,” Doak says. If the climate changes, “should we transplant the buckwheat to higher elevations? Do we move it to save it or not?”  

The most obvious answer, Doak suggests, is to stop climate change. “But we’re not doing that very effectively.”  
And so, 50 years after the ESA was written into law, the work continues.  

“We have to plan for protecting species and habitats,” says Doak, “as well as our own lives.”

Top image: Channel Island fox, grizzly bear, bald eagle, desert tortoise

Did you enjoy this article? Subcribe to our newsletter. Passionate about environmental studies? Show your support.