I was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, a land of extremes. Temperatures could drop below -50ᵒ Fahrenheit in the winter and the darkness would seem to stretch out endlessly, while the summers provided radiant sunshine for months that infused a sense of magic into our town. Certainly, for me, the most charmed experiences from my childhood all happened in the Alaskan wilderness. I deep-sea fished on my grandparent’s boat in Prince William Sound, spending a week on the ocean each summer exploring coastline that would reach up and tower over me like a fern-covered arctic rainforest, trees hung with pale green moss. I saw sea otters floating on their backs in the surf, and watched sea birds dive for scraps cast off by anglers as they cleaned their catch on the docks. These experiences throughout Alaska shaped my desire to work in a field that allowed me to study and protect the natural world around me, including threatened and endangered species.
I moved to Reno, Nevada to attend college, and ended up in the Great Basin Desert, a landscape that felt about a million miles away from the forests I’d grown up in. My first field research job entailed hiking around the desert one autumn mapping the water boundaries of the Amargosa toad, an amphibian up for listing consideration under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) at the time. Post-undergraduate work led me to an environmental non-profit, where I coordinated the monitoring of habitat restoration projects for the Greater sage-grouse, a large bird also being considered for protections under the ESA during that period. Now, in graduate school and subsequent professional experiences, I’ve worked on rare and endangered plant surveys, hiking across harsh desert terrain to search for shy little species like the Black wooly pod.
As I look back on my experiences, I’ve realized that in the decade since I began my journey as a research scientist, I’ve been fortunate to be involved in not one, but two ESA success stories. Through a collective effort by government organizations, private landowners, and other stakeholders, both the Amargosa toad and the Greater sage-grouse are no longer up for listing under the ESA. These accomplishments have been the product of incredibly large-scale collaborations across agencies, disciplines, and state boundaries, and were no easy feat. However, the Trump administration has recently proposed loosening the hard-won protections for sage-grouse, underlining the need for continued vigilance by scientists and science-supporters to ensure those interest groups benefiting from such a decision are held accountable.
I’m still early in my career, and I found it difficult at first to articulate what the Endangered Species Act means to me. But, after reflecting on my experiences, I’ve realized my personal and professional journey to where I am today has been wholly influenced by the ESA.
I was able to advance my support for the law when I traveled to Washington, D.C. this past February to take part in a collaborative effort between the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Endangered Species Coalition to bring awareness to threats against the Endangered Species Act. Along with Rob Mrowka, a career scientist from Nevada, I met with our state legislators and their staff to discuss the importance of protecting the ESA and the species it covers. In collaboration with other scientists from across the country, our collective efforts helped raise awareness of riders and amendments meant to weaken important ESA protections, and I am thrilled to say that many of these provisions were rejected by Congress in the end. To me, this victory reinforced how important our voices as scientists and science-supporters are, and how diving into the politics of science to contribute our expertise and opinions can truly have an impact. We should not feel helpless in these challenging times when we have so much power in collaboration.
So, what does the ESA mean to me? It means opportunities for research, and a chance to take lessons learned from one species’ survival story and apply them to other complex conservation problems. It means collaboration, among people that may not otherwise ever share a meeting. It means support, for those species awarded protections they might desperately need to stabilize and grow, ensuring we maintain our biodiversity on this planet. And it means hope, that a small toad only living along a single ten-mile stretch of road, or a bird that performs one of the most beautiful mating displays I’ve ever witnessed, can rise up from the threat of extinction, all because of the collective efforts of a community.
As scientists, please join me in signing this letter telling Congress to protect science and the Endangered Species Act, because our collective voices are louder and can do more than any one of us alone.
Cody Ernst-Brock is currently finishing her M.S. at the University of Nevada, Reno in the Natural Resources and Environmental Science program. Her research centers on analyses of restoration projects implemented across the state, often in sensitive sage-grouse, pygmy rabbit, and mule deer habitat. She hopes to continue her work in conservation and restoration post-graduation, preferably in a capacity that allows her to travel. In her free time she enjoys exploring her home in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where you can find her mountain biking, kayaking, and swimming in Lake Tahoe.
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