The ESA turns 40

"How old are we?" John Melcher calls to his wife. She yells back an answer.

"I am 89 years old," he says, chuckling quietly over the phone. "I just needed to make sure."

Melcher was exactly 49 years old when, as Montana's congressman from the now-defunct second district, he was one of 355 U.S. representatives to vote for the Endangered Species Act, or ESA. Only four voted against it. In the Senate, the support was even more pronounced, as not a single senator said "nay." On Dec. 28, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the ESA into law, calling America's wildlife "priceless" and "worthy of preservation."

From his home in Missoula, Melcher has been witness to the success of this historic bipartisan achievement.

"When the bald eagle gained ESA protection in 1978, believe it or not, we only had 12 pairs in Montana," says Derek Goldman, field representative of the Endangered Species Coalition. "Now you can see a bald eagle on practically every river or creek in the state."

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  • NPS, Jim Peaco

Species like the American peregrine falcon, the American alligator, the black-footed ferret and the brown pelican saw similar population rebounds over the past 40 years.

"But the biggest success in Montana and the Northern Rockies, really, is the restoration of the gray wolf from near extinction in this region," says Goldman. "I think that recovery gets lost in a lot of the conflict, but when you think about it we have taken a large carnivore and brought it back from the edge. It is a great testament to the ESA and to American wildlife conservation generally."

Today, the ESA remains a major force in protecting such species as the fluvial arctic grayling and the greater sage grouse in Montana. Melcher thinks the bill is doing exactly what it is supposed to do.

"Back then it was part of the business of being in Congress to pass far-reaching bills," he says. "Passing the Endangered Species Act got everybody talking about the issue. It was important when we passed it, and it will have importance today, tomorrow and all the years forward."

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