January 3, 2014
CARLSBAD >> For decades, visitors have lined the fence at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park for the chance to lay eyes on the Mexican grey wolf.
One of the most popular exhibits has been made possible, in part, due to the Endangered Species Act. The landmark legislation, passed by the U.S. Congress on Dec. 28, 1973, turned 40 years old last week and has continued to impact Southeastern New Mexico.
Thirty-one species residing in New Mexico are currently listed on the Endangered Species Act as either threatened or endangered. The Mexican grey wolf is among the most famous species, and according to some it owes its livelihood to the ESA.
"I think it's a great tool," said Holly Payne, the general curator of the Living Desert Zoo. She believes the Mexican grey wolf would have been extinct today if not for the federal government's protection.
"I think we would have lost a lot of animals that are on the Endangered Species List, or have been in the past and maybe are off now," Payne said. "I think it's great that we cared. We actually cared."
The main goal of the ESA is to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. Once listed, all efforts are put forth to nurse a species population back to suitable levels so as to not let the animal become extinct.
When population of a certain animal fall to a level scientists agree is dangerous, a species can be listed under the ESA.
"Threatened" is the first designation and means a species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. At the next level, "Endangered," a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.
Payne and the rest of the staff at Living Desert make it their mission to educate the populace, young and old alike, about the importance of cohabitation between humans and wildlife.
"We are here to educate people, so displaying the Mexican grey wolf is a great thing," Payne said. "Everything in the wild is linked, so I think overall it has really helped, and hopefully helped to open people's eyes also."
Wildlife conservation started to gain major traction in the 1960s and led to the eventual passing of the ESA by a Democratic-held House and Senate. The bill was later signed into law by President Richard Nixon.
The United States' first attempt at some sort of species conservation effort was the Lacey Act of 1900, which was passed in response to growing public concern about the potential extinction of the passenger pigeon.
Conservationists waited nearly seven decades for the next major piece of legislation, the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966. The final precursor to the ESA was the Endangered Species Conservation Act passed in 1969.
Reporter Zack Ponce can be reached at 575-689-7402.