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The Endangered Species Act turns 50 today. Here are some of Maine's biggest success stories

A bald eagle scans a hayfield in Waldo County. There are now more than 700 nesting pairs in Maine.
Murray Carpenter
/
Maine Public
A bald eagle scans a hayfield in Waldo County. There are now more than 700 nesting pairs in Maine.

Fifty years ago, on December 28, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law. Since then, some high-profile Maine species have received protection under the act. There have been some conspicuous successes, but some species face increasing threats from the effects of climate change.

When Mark McCollough started studying bald eagles in 1981, they were federally protected, and Maine only had about 70 pairs left.

“They were the last eagles in New England," he said. "So conserving and preserving this small population that was mostly lived Down East along the coast was so important if we were ever going to restore eagles back to the Northeast.”

McCollough recently retired after working for more than 30 years as an endangered species wildlife biologist for both the state and federal government.

In that time, he has seen the eagles rebound to a population of more than 700 nesting pairs in Maine, and witnessed a recovery sufficient to have them delisted, in 2007.

A bald eagle flies above the Sebasticook River in May, looking for alewives.
Murray Carpenter
/
Maine Public
A bald eagle flies above the Sebasticook River in May, looking for alewives.

When the Endangered Species Act, or ESA, was signed into law in 1973, there were no peregrine falcons nesting east of the Mississippi, and they were among the first to be listed for protection.

“But now we have several dozen pairs of peregrines nesting in most of our larger cities on bridges, on buildings, on cliffs out in the forest," McCollough said. "So they’ve largely recovered their populations here in Maine.”

Other Maine species face a more difficult climb. Canada lynx, Atlantic salmon and piping plovers are still protected under the act. The plovers are rebounding following conservation measures, their population increasing tenfold from a low of about a dozen pairs, while lynx and salmon still face many challenges.

Meanwhile, climate change threatens all three species, and many others, says Maine Audubon policy advocate Francesca Gundrum.

Peregrine falcons near a nesting ledge in midcoast Maine. They were among the first species listed under the Endangered Species Act, but recovered enough to be delisted in 1999.
Murray Carpenter
/
Maine Public
Peregrine falcons near a nesting ledge in midcoast Maine. They were among the first species listed under the Endangered Species Act, but recovered enough to be delisted in 1999.

“We need to talk about the biodiversity crisis in tandem with the climate crisis, as we are seeing steep declines in Maine, too, of some species that were once abundant at the population level," she said, "We’re seeing large-scale changes.”

Gundrum says the ESA is an appropriate tool to protect wildlife from challenges posed by climate, and other risks. But she says it and other pioneering legislation of the 1970s, such as the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act, are constantly being targeted by forces in Congress that want to see them weakened.

“What we’re advocating for as the state’s largest and oldest wildlife conservation organization, is to keep the ESA strong, to keep it intact, to keep it well-funded, all of the above," Gundrum said.

And the ESA has generated plenty of controversy over the years. Maine’s entire congressional delegation and then-Gov. Angus King strongly opposed the listing of Atlantic salmon in 2000.

A piping plover on Popham Beach. Their nesting areas are cordoned off to protect the birds and their hatchlings, and their numbers are rebounding.
Murray Carpenter
/
Maine Public
A piping plover on Popham Beach. Their nesting areas are cordoned off to protect the birds and their hatchlings, and their numbers are rebounding.

More recently, tensions have flared between federal regulators and Maine lobstermen over regulations designed to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale. And in July, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine's 2nd District voted to strip ESA protections for the northern long-eared bat — an effort vetoed by President Joe Biden.

McCollough says the ESA has been controversial since the get-go, citing the impact of a rare flower on a dam proposed for the St. John River more than 40 years ago.

“The Dickey-Lincoln dam would have flooded its habitat, but that went to the federal courts, and was a hard-fought battle by environmentalists," he said. "And Congress ended up decommissioning the plans for that dam, primarily because of the endangered species status of the Furbish’s lousewort.”

But he and other advocates of the ESA say that in most cases, it has accommodated both the needs of plants and wildlife and the demands of humans.

Murray Carpenter is Maine Public’s climate reporter, covering climate change and other environmental news.