50 Years: What the Endangered Species Act Has Meant for Amphibians and Reptiles

By JJ Apodaca, Executive Director, Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy | March 28, 2023

In December of this year, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) turns 50 years old. As this important anniversary approaches, I’m sure you will see waves of news coverage. If it’s anything like past coverage of the ESA, it will be as varied as the species the act protects. No environmental act has been more lambasted or more praised than the ESA. 

In this post and beyond, I will dig into the ESA and discuss what it means for amphibian and reptile conservation. This overview will be followed by a series of posts leading up to the anniversary featuring amphibians and reptiles that have been listed as Threatened or Endangered, some that have thrived and some that continue to struggle. It is my hope that increased understanding of this vital law and the effects it has on our native biodiversity will help us better appreciate it and continue in our work together to improve it. 

My personal relationship with the ESA is complicated. It is easy to look at cases like the amazing recovery of the American alligator and praise the ESA. It’s equally possible to criticize the act when looking at examples like the Houston toad. The toad has experienced massive declines over the last fifty years despite being one of the earliest amphibians listed. The ESA has had major successes and major failures. However, in the two decades that I’ve been interacting with the ESA, I have come to have a different view of it altogether.   

I first came face-to-face with the ESA in February of 2005. It happened when I had an encounter with a species that would come to shape my career in more ways than I could ever imagine. That species is the Red Hills salamander, found only in its namesake sliver of southern Alabama—the same sliver that gave us Hank Williams, Harper Lee, and Truman Capote. The Red Hills salamander was federally listed as Threatened in 1976 thanks to the efforts of legendary Alabama herpetologist Dr. Bob Mount and Ralph Jordan, the son of the Auburn University football coach at the time. Nothing escapes the gravitational pull of college football in Alabama. 

On that February day, I accompanied another legendary Alabama herpetologist, Jim Godwin, to a site in the southern part of the state. In the heart of that industrial pine country was an area that felt more like the Southern Appalachians, with dense hardwood canopy and lush understory vegetation. As I walked—or more accurately, slid—down a steep slope, I saw my first Red Hills salamander. This amazing species is almost completely fossorial, spending most of its life within a complex burrow system and only coming to the burrow entrance to feed and occasionally look for a mate. As soon as I saw that face staring out at me from the burrow entrance, I knew I had to do something to help protect such an incredible species.  

I remember naively thinking, ‘this is a federally listed species; recovery should be easy.’ I’m sure I’ve had dumber thoughts in my life, but that one is pretty high on the list. I would probably have to write a book to tell you all of the things I learned along the way as I worked to help this species, but one lesson stands above them all for me. It’s that the Endangered Species Act hasn’t failed all of those listed species that are barely hanging on. We have failed the ESA. 

By that, I mean that the ESA provides an effective framework and last-resort protection, but if we want to achieve widespread recovery, we as a conservation community must create innovative ways to implement it. The ESA is like a skeleton. It provides structure and a point of anchor for our bodies, but it can’t move us forward on its own. To go anywhere, it needs everything else—the muscles, ligaments, tendons, flesh—-and the rest of that meat is represented by the larger conservation community. Without our collective efforts around it, the ESA stands still; it can’t recover species. 

The Red Hills salamander taught me this lesson. As incredible as this amphibian is (how many species do you know of that breathe through their skin and have a prehensile tail and reinforced skull?), it doesn’t hold the broad appeal of a panda or rhinoceros.  Plus, more than 99.9% of people in our country will never know that it exists. 

The Red Hills salamander’s situation mirrors the complexities and ironies of most endangered species conservation and recovery. For example, I was not surprised to learn that the core reason for their declines was unsustainable timber industry practices of past decades—an easy villain. But then, I learned that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, timber companies and private landowners played a disproportionate role in the conservation success stories for the species. 

At that time, there were exactly zero conservation organizations working to protect the species. Those private landowners were using the structure of the ESA and some innovative (at the time) policies to ensure that the species didn’t continue to decline. Without these efforts, there would be far fewer populations of Red Hills salamanders, maybe even none at all. 

Only when we started to form a network around the recovery of the species—including timber companies, land trusts, conservation organizations, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the State of Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources—did conservation efforts blossom. And though the species has a long way to go in terms of recovery, there have been some major steps in the right direction. I’m confident that one day, hopefully within my lifetime, we will see a full recovery of the species.

I am extremely grateful that the ESA exists, as it is a powerful piece of legislation that has saved many amphibians and reptiles from extinction. But I realize that we can’t stand back and expect it to save the species we love on its own—it needs support and the creation of innovative new tools and policies. Simply put, if we want to recover species, we can’t expect that the ESA will wave a magic wand. We have to jump in and help. 

That’s exactly what we at ARC have built our PARCA, or Priority Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Area, programs to do. They are designed to help rebuild the most vital habitats for many Threatened and Endangered species and to be the muscle that moves recovery forward. When our work restoring wetlands is combined with the protections of the ESA, it helps species like the bog turtles and narrow-headed garter snakes to come back from the brink of extinction. 

When we combine stream restoration with innovative ESA landowner protection programs, we can stop the rapid decline of species, such as the Black Warrior waterdog and the flattened musk turtle. And when we build new headstarting programs to support ESA recovery goals for frosted flatwoods salamanders and gopher frogs we also build hope for the conservation of all Endangered and Threatened amphibians and reptiles. And that is the true legacy of the ESA, the promise that we can bring back the species we nearly lost.