On a remote beach south of Tallahassee last week, a sizeable crowd gathered to watch legendary marine biologist Jack Rudloe release two rescued juvenile Kemp’s ridley sea turtles into the wild. Kemp’s ridleys are the world’s most endangered sea turtles; these two were fixed up and ready to go after getting caught in fishing line.
The 75-year-old Rudloe wore his signature blue suit and red tie to honor the occasion as he waded into the water twice and watched the turtles paddle away. It was a thrilling moment that everybody – especially the kids and adolescents – tried to capture on their phones and cameras.
“In the old days,” Rudloe said, “sea turtles were butchered at the docks.”
He’s been fighting developers, oil drillers, and other Florida despoilers since the 1970s. Now, he’s sounding the alarm about new threats in the Republican Congress to the nation’s Endangered Species Act.
A group of conservative members of Congress, organized as the Congressional Western Caucus, have introduced a package of nine bills which would radically alter the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Among other things, the bills would mandate that government decisions about endangered species would have to consider the economic impact on industries that want to wipe out rare plants and creatures.
“You cannot justify losing a species because it’s costing some business or some developer too much money,” said Sierra Club Florida director Frank Jackalone. “Life on earth has no price. It’s priceless.”
The nation’s environmentalists have fought proposals like this before. The difference this time is that Congressional moderates who once stopped extreme measures are dwindling in numbers, and the Republican political majorities in the U.S. House and Senate appear eager to gut the Endangered Species Act before the midterm elections, while they have controlling majorities. The attack on the Endangered Species Act is backed by oil drillers and frackers, homebuilders, mining companies, farm interests, anti-government groups, and their former colleagues who now work for the Trump administration.
“What the oil lobbyists and executives say would ‘cut out red tape’ will abolish protections for species that are already on the verge of extinction,” said Sarah Gledhill, Florida field campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity.
The planet is now experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, Gledhill’s group reports. Nesting Kemp’s ridleys once crowded the beaches on Mexico’s Yucatan coast – as many as 40,000 nests at a time – but the numbers have sharply declined. The mass nesting event was captured on film in 1947.
The proposed Congressional legislation would get rid of the deliberative process that’s part of the Endangered Species Act now and instead rubber stamp approvals that impact dwindling species, Gledhill said. Wildlife advocates say the only hope is for the pubic to apply pressure to their elected representatives and senators in Congress to keep the Endangered Species Act strong. It has worked before.
Rudloe’s Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratories in the tiny town of Panacea has spent decades doing outreach to teach the public – especially schoolkids – about the amazing array of sea life on this part of the relatively wild Florida coast. The nonprofit lab also collects and sells marine specimens for laboratories and schools, so Rudloe is keenly aware of what species are in the area and which are in decline.
As he got ready to release the turtles, he told the assembled group that “the Endangered Species Act gives us one of the only handles to stop the destruction.”
He gestured behind him, remarking that “this swamp back here” is critical to species survival. Then he stopped himself. The swamp he’s long known – part of an ecosystem he’s been writing books and National Geographic articles about – was now condominiums with a dredged, concrete-sided channel for boats.
“Well,” he corrected, “the swamp that was there.”
The nearby St. Marks Wildlife Refuge is a stunning landscape of vast pale green grassy wetlands, coastal pine forests, ancient cypress domes and big sky. It “could be a golf course,” Rudloe said dryly, “should the president decide it would make a wonderful place for a golf course.”
Then, with a hard look in his eye, the 75-year-old conservationist grumbled: “We should drain the political swamp up in Washington. And keep the real swamps here.”