Monday marks the 49th annual Earth Day, and organizers and participants are hoping to raise awareness about endangered species.

According to the Earth Day Network, species are going extinct at between 1,000 and 10,000 times the normal rate, and we are in the midst of the largest species extinction in 60 million years. In Massachusetts alone, there are 215 endangered plant and animal species, according to a list created by the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA), and that list is ever-changing.

Earth Day, an annual day of service and environmental recognition, was created in 1970 under the Nixon administration amid nation-wide student protests of the Vietnam War.

Three years after the first earth day, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which mandates the federal protection of endangered and at-risk species. MESA, enacted in 1990, does the same thing for plant and animal species in the commonwealth.

The species the MESA List tracks are broken down into three categories: endangered, threatened, and special concern. Of the 427 species protected under MESA, nearly half are endangered. One hundred and fifty-three of the state's endangered species are plants.

Three factors could land a species on the MESA List: if it's rare in Massachusetts, if its population is declining or if it faces threats in the state, according to MassWildlife's Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program (NHESP), the state office that manages MESA.

When a species makes its way onto this list, the NHESP is responsible for protecting it via more research, or via land protection, habitat management and population management, said Peter Hazelton, chief of conservation science for the NHESP.

Hazelton gave the example of the Northern red-bellied cooter, a turtle that is endangered both in Massachusetts and federally. In 1984, the NHESP collected hatchlings, brought them into local schools that raised the turtles for their nine months, and then released them back into the wild. At that point, the turtles were better suited to evade predators and survive.

This practice, Hazelton said, "allows the population to grow back up to a healthy breeding population of adults."

Proposed changes to the 2019 MESA List

Every four to five years, the NHESP reevaluates the MESA List. In its most recent update, the program has proposed 17 changes, which are awaiting final approval.

Some of these changes are "upgrades" in classification status, according to MassWildlife Chief of Information and Education Marion Larson, meaning a species moves to a less urgent category — like moving from "endangered" to "threatened."

By the numbers: Endangered species in Massachusetts

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Data Source: MESA List via
Emily Judem/WGBH News

The bald eagle and the peregrine falcon could both soon be upgraded, as the NHESP says they should move from "threatened" to "special concern."

"It is great news," Hazelton said. "Massachusetts was one of the first states to be doing what's called hacking, where we would take a species of bird, from chicks or fledglings, from another state and release them in our state." The program started back in the 1980s, Hazelton said, and has been a success.

The bad news: The NHESP has proposed that three species of bees be added to the MESA List, all for the first time.

"We've noticed that bees and pollinators are declining in general," Hazelton said. "These three bees in particular are thought to be declining pretty significantly. So with increased awareness, not just in Massachusetts but throughout New England ... it was prudent for us to list them, and hopefully we'll be able to identify some conservation actions for them."

What citizens can do

You don't have to be a conservation expert to help at-risk creatures.

"Citizens have been very helpful to the work that we're doing to protect endangered species," said Larson. "Citizens have been helping us build a database where we learn where different endangered species are living, so we have an idea of what's out there."

The NHESP takes that information and generates maps of Massachusetts that have regulatory information. If a developer wants to make changes to a space, they may have to seek approval from the NHESP. If the development would impact a species, the program proposes environmentally-friendly changes to the developer's plan.

The program's website details how citizens should report a rare species sighting.

"Life is a lot easier for everyone involved if things are common and not endangered," said Larson. "I often say ... every day is Earth Day."