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Outdoors Column | Les Winkeler: Endangered Species Act needs protection

Outdoors Column | Les Winkeler: Endangered Species Act needs protection

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So what’s next, a bald eagle hunting season?

Are we going to take drones into the Grand Canyon to take out the remaining California condors?

The Trump administration’s disdain for the environment has never been even thinly veiled, but taking the teeth out of the Endangered Species Act is just a step too far.

This is an administration that put Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke, lobbyists for extraction industries, in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior. This is an administration that thumbs its nose at climate science. This is an administration that is trying to open national wildlife refuges to oil drilling.

Even with that appalling record and open disregard for nature, you’d think some things were sacred.

There was a time, not that long ago, when the symbol of America, the bald eagle was on the brink of extinction. However, Republican President Richard M. Nixon signed the Clean Air and Clean Water acts as well as the Endangered Species Act.

Nixon, hardly a left-winger, said there is no reason the United States can’t have a thriving economy and a healthy environment. Apparently, the Trump administration disagrees. The economic impact of protecting a species will now be taken into consideration before an animal is listed as endangered.

There are no words.

“Recovering species is a biological question, not an economic question,” Leah Gerber, professor of conservation science and founding director of the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes at Arizona State University told Time magazine.

That would seem intuitive, but apparently not.

Proponents of the new policy say the Endangered Species Act is not effective.

That notion seems preposterous to those of us who were alive in the 1970s. I vividly remember spotting a bald eagle in the wild for the first time.

It was the early 1990s. I was fishing at Horseshoe Lake with a guide whose name I can’t remember. While trolling slowly through the cypress trees, I looked up in time to see a huge bird gliding above.

My immediate reaction was, “Oh my God, a bald eagle.”

But, not knowing the guide personally, I didn’t want to sound like a complete moron. However, when I glanced to the back of the boat, he was staring at the sky with a look of bewilderment.

“Did you see it too?” I asked.

He seemed relieved I had seen it too. Neither of us wanted to appear to be hallucinating. It was a life-altering moment.

Although still a breathtaking sight, the bald eagle is hardly rare in Southern Illinois, especially in the winter.

The California condor technically went extinct in the wild. At one time the total population fell below 30. Scientists captured all the remaining birds and embarked on a captive breeding program.

There are now about 500 condors.

The story of the whooping crane is similar. Gray wolves were on the verge of extinction. Scientists tell us that 99 percent of animals listed as endangered have escaped extinction.

There is no price, no value, we can place on preserving our natural world. There is nothing that can approximate the thrill of watching a bald eagle soaring just above the surface of a lake, trying to snag a duck for lunch.

How disappointing would it be to hold a grandchild on your lap, show them a photo of a bald eagle and tell him/her this beautiful creature is no longer found on the Earth because drilling oil or mining coal was more important.

That’s simply unthinkable.

LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.



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