Breath of Clarity

Words Matter

ifferent connotations definitely impact the government’s use of the words vanishing, threatened, endangered, and protection/conservation. Vanishing explains the presence of wildlife relative to the space they inhabit. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used a similar verb in saying wildlife across the world were “disappearing” from the landscape (2013). The terms vanishing and disappearing are quite vague and seems to be a result of happenstance much more so than a consequence of ineffective conservation policy. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service went on to declare the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, Zursees Butterfly had already vanished (2013). By communicating extinction in such a way, the government is making it seem as though extinction is a rapid process. In actuality, the endangering of a species happens over time. However, by using the word vanishing, the government is making it sound as though they did not have much agency in the situation. In reality, endangered species are most controversial when they damage profits or property and we currently don’t have enough money to recover more than 25% of all the species (CBS News 2019). So, the government uses words such as vanishing or disappearing to allow reasons for lack of impactful conservation action to operate under the radar. Failure to prioritize the thriving of wildlife leads to a lack of funding and attention towards the problem which ultimately results in a decrease in populations of rare animal species.

The difference between the meanings of threatened and endangered also plays a role in whether wildlife is being only protected or truly conserved. 99% of the species covered by the act have not been declared extinct but only 2% have recovered (CBS News 2019). While the government is seemingly protecting species on the list by taking the necessary measures to keep them from going extinct, it is not executing through conservation because only 2% have fully recovered. So, saving animals on the brink of extinction, in the government’s eyes, is more so about keeping them on the list with minimal effort rather than removing them due to substantial progress. CBS News discussed a change considered by President Donald Trump’s administration that would make the issue I described even worse. The administration’s change would likely reduce protection for threatened species as opposed to those endangered (CBS News 2019). The change would increase the separation between the words threatened and endangered which would result in a greater problem in terms of wildlife health. In the Channel Islands, foxes had nearly gone extinct when they were added to the Endangered Species list in 2004 (CBS News). Agreeing to a larger separation in definition between the words threatened and endangered brings potential for the government to be less accountable to allocate funding towards biodiversity.


CBS News. 2019. “On the brink: The Endangered Species Act.” CBS news. Jul 21, 2019. Video, 7:57.

US Fish and Wildlife Service. 2013. “The Endangered Species Act: 40 Years at the Forefront of Wildlife Conservation.” Us Fish and Wilflife Service. Sept 19th, 2013. Video, 4:36.

Comment by Fenton Kay:

Excellent and interesting points, Mary. What do you think about my comment to Devon regarding changing the terminology in the ESA to more closely match the IUCN definitions?: I think that Congress would do well to look into modifying the terms used in the ESA to more completely agree with the IUCN terms. However, the danger that I see is if there was a major overhaul of the ESA (which many think is overdue), it would open up the law to some changes that are not necessarily in the best interest of species protection/conservation. What are your thoughts on how we might go about lobbying for a change that would be to the benefit of the ESA?

My Comment:

Hi Fenton,

I also agree the ESA overhaul is much needed. The inability of the government to fully empower the agencies to implement the law has been the most notable failure of the ESA (Schwartz 2008). Also, recovery expenditures do not match need or agency-set priorities, and critical habitat determinations have lagged, and listing of species has not matched need (Schwartz 2008). That said, I agree with changing the terminology in the ESA to more closely match the IUCN definitions because the new wording would communicate a specific need which would leave less room for any ambiguous connotations. Since the IUCN scale is scientifically standardized, implementing it would hopefully make the decision about which species to protect way more objective.

Additionally, almost 30% of the species currently listed under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) neither live nor migrate through the United States or the territories under its jurisdiction (Foley et al. 2017). So, for the purpose of effective lobbying, I collaboration amongst conservation groups around the world. Perhaps, we might even go about lobbying by getting the governments of other nations involved. The U.S. takes its relationships with leaders of other nations very seriously, and getting other governments onboard would also generate international public awareness of the issue.


Foley, Catherine, Maureen Lynch, Lesley Thorne, and Heather Lynch. 2017. “Listing Foreign Species under the Endangered Species Act”. BioScience. 67 (7): 627-637.

Schwartz, Mark. 2008. “The Performance of the Endangered Species Act”. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics. 39: 279-299.

Comment by Eric Lanners:

Hello Mary,

I appreciate your discussion on the recent changes to the ESA. The Trump administration deregulated statutes like the ESA in favor of the economy. I can see how this will be beneficial in the short-term but much more costly in the long-term when more species receive the endangered designation.

Comment by Lauren Winter:

Hi Mary,

“So, the government uses words such as vanishing or disappearing to allow reasons for lack of impactful conservation action to operate under the radar.” What a great quote. I hadn’t considered the angle before, that the government uses those words to evade culpability and make themselves seem like bystanders instead of players. I think we may be (possibly, hopefully) entering a new age of holding politicians accountable for their words and actions. I think, as a nation, we are starting to really understand the difference between lip service and genuine action, and hopefully that can be extrapolated to environmental issues as well. Did the Trump Administration follow through with these plans?

My Reply to Lauren Winter:

Hi Lauren,

Thanks for prompting me to do further research about the Trump Administration’s changes to the ESA!

The changes finalized August 12, 2019 by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Marine Fisheries Service apply to ESA sections 4 and 7 (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2019). Section 4, among other things, deals with adding species to or removing species from the Act’s protections and designating critical habitat; section 7 covers consultations with other federal agencies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized a revision rescinding its “blanket rule” under section 4(d) of the ESA (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2019). The rule had automatically given threatened species the same protections as endangered species unless otherwise specified (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2019). The National Marine Fisheries Service has never employed such a blanket rule, so the new regulations bring the two agencies into alignment (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2019). The change impacts only future threatened species listings or reclassifications from endangered to threatened status and does not apply to species already listed as threatened (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2019). When designating critical habitat, the regulations reinstate the requirement that areas where threatened or endangered species are present at the time of listing be evaluated first before unoccupied areas are considered (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2019). In addition, the regulations impose a heightened standard for unoccupied areas to be designated as critical habitat (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2019). On top of the existing standard that the designated unoccupied habitat is essential to the conservation of the species, it must also, at the time of designation, contain one or more of the physical or biological features essential to the species’ conservation (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2019). It was interesting to see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife declared species recovery was the ultimate goal of the changes.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2019. “Trump Administration Improves the Implementing Regulations of the Endangered Species Act: Species recovery the ultimate goal”. Press Release.