by Whit Gibbons

November 7, 2005

The House of Representatives forged a revision to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) this fall. The vote was 229 to 193, not exactly a mandate. The new bill now moves to the U.S. Senate, probably early in 2006.

The future of our nation’s wildlife is too important to sit by idly without careful scrutiny of the proposed changes and without asking some hard questions to lawmakers. Is the new bill designed to protect our natural heritage or to make a few wealthy landowners and developers even wealthier by weakening the protection of native wildlife? Would the proposed law jeopardize any species, whether endangered or not, at a landowner’s whim? If so, why are landowners not allowed to harm game species on their private land, but the proposed law would not offer full protection to nongame species?

Now is the time to start learning what the proposed congressional changes to the ESA are and to learn about the imperiled species themselves. For now, a careful look at the status of species in the United States can be instructive. A recent article in “BioScience” titled “How many endangered species are there in the United States?” by D. S. Wilcore and L. L. Master of Princeton University offers some facts and insights into the issue.

Some of the biological facts about the realities or possibilities of extinction among species are sobering. More than 50 U.S. species of vertebrates are presumably or possibly extinct. These include 20 fishes, 29 birds, and 2 mammals. More than 100 of the country’s native vascular plants are possibly extinct. The ESA cannot help species that are gone forever, but we can still be concerned and responsible for protecting the more than 8,000 species of U.S. plants and animals ranked as critically imperiled, imperiled, or vulnerable. None of the categories is a particularly healthy situation for a species to be in.

One dramatic point made in the article is that ecologists have too little knowledge of the behavior, environmental requirements, and general biology of the nation’s plants and animals to really know whether most are imperiled or not. This is not a trivial point. Not one to be taken lightly. It is comparable to a hospital with 1,000 patients of which the doctors and nurses know the status of only 150 as to whether they require treatment. They do not know the condition of the other 850, so no treatment is given to any of them, and they are released simply because it is unknown whether they are sick or healthy.

Virtually all studies have shown that among today’s imperiled species, habitat loss and degradation are the primary causes that threaten and endanger the vast majority. Invasive species, pollution, commercial exploitation, parasites, and disease are responsible for the decline of some. But the underlying reason for the most damage, as well as the most common cause for downward spirals toward extinction, is loss of habitat. And yet, the proposed ESA bill makes it easier for habitat to be destroyed, not more difficult. You don’t have to be a scientist to know what that will mean.

To say the protection of endangered species is already in a fragile state is evident from how few are currently being added to the list each year. One scale of measurement is the fact that the highest additions of species to the federal endangered species list in recent years were during Bill Clinton’s two terms, when an average of 65 species were added to the list annually. During George W. Bush’s first term, an average of 10 species a year have been added. In other words, although more and more species are without question declining and disappearing every year, we are declaring that fewer and fewer are in need of protection! Sounds to me like we should be strengthening the ESA rather than diluting it by making it easier for people to circumvent species protection.

The Senate will not consider the bill until after the first of the year, so we have plenty of time to find out the details of wording and intent and to let our elected officials tell us what they plan to do about protecting our native species for us--and for the generations to come.

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