Like most of our federal laws and regulations intended to protect the environment, the Endangered Species Act is under fire because the political party now in power is opposed to government regulations that impose any perceived limitations on economic activity. There are a number of laws grinding their way through the legislative process that would revise, if not gut the ESA.*
I have mixed feelings about the threats to weaken the ESA because there is widespread agreement that the law could be improved. When it was created, over 40 years ago, it was based on the scientific knowledge available at the time. For example, recently available molecular analysis has greatly improved our ability to accurately identify species.
Climate change was but a glimmer on the distant horizon 40 years ago. Now most people understand that climate change will cause many extinctions that the ESA is powerless to prevent. Emaciated polar bears standing on small islands of ice are the poster children for the impact of climate change on rare animals.
The political threats to the ESA have focused the attention of the media on specific examples of endangered species and the efforts to prevent their extinction. Each one illustrates a different issue with the existing law.
Attempts to solve one problem cause other problems
The Greater sage grouse is a critically endangered bird (although not officially designated as such) that requires sagebrush for its home. In an effort to expand habitat for the grouse, land managers destroyed native junipers that were spreading into grouse habitat. A few years later they determined that destroying the trees did not produce the desired habitat. Instead, non-native annual grasses have colonized the bare ground and many sapling junipers are growing from the seed bank left by the trees that were destroyed. (1)
Instead of calling the tree destruction a failed experiment, the scientists now propose to escalate the eradication effort. They now plan to use herbicides and prescribed burns to eradicate the non-native annual grasses. Given the persistence of herbicides in the soil, more sagebrush may not be the ultimate outcome. And the sage grouse are unlikely to benefit from either poisoned vegetation or fires in their habitat.
Some extinctions are the unintended consequence of misguided “conservation” efforts
When European rabbits were intentionally imported to Australia, predictably the population quickly exploded. A virus was then intentionally imported to kill the rabbits. Like many biocontrols, the virus spread into the native range of the rabbits about 20 years ago, including into Spain.
The Iberian lynx is very rare partly because it is a picky eater. Curiously, rabbits are the strongly preferred prey of the Iberian lynx. There were enough rabbits available for the lynx until the rabbits were wiped out by the virus that was unintentionally imported to Spain. The population of Iberian lynx plummeted to only 100 known individuals. That’s when the EU version of the ESA kicked into action.
The Iberian lynx is now bred in captivity, a complex and challenging process likened to “having a nursery for rich kids in which you have a teacher for each kid.” Needless to say that is an expensive proposition. Releasing the lynx back into the wild required that 50,000 rabbits (costing $12.30 each) be simultaneously released into lynx territory. The project cost $42 million over a period of 7 years. (2)
The Spanish environmental official responsible for the project was visibly irritated when asked about the cost of the program. He said “some ‘ignorant’ pundits were drawing unflattering comparisons between how much was being spent on the lynx compared to funding allocated to offset social issues such as unemployment.” The strongest defenses of extreme efforts to save rare species are made by those who earn their living on them. (2)
Growing number of “conservation reliant” species
An article in the New York Times magazine recently asked this rhetorical question, “Should some species be allowed to die out?” (3) The article focused on Hawaii because it is a place where heroic efforts have been made to save endangered species. Nearly 50% of 1,280 federal endangered species are in Hawaii. Over 80% of all endangered species are considered “conservation reliant,” a term used to describe the plants and animals that are permanently on life support. They will not survive if not permanently tended by humans in hothouses and animal shelters.
Hawaii has the most endangered species because they evolved in isolation in a distant place with no interaction with the outside world until about 700 years ago. That isolation cannot be recreated without stopping all trade and travel to and from Hawaii. That is clearly not going to happen. If the underlying conditions that cause extinctions cannot be reversed, no amount of human effort is likely to prevent the extinction.
Although I consider most of these efforts futile, that is not the conventional wisdom. There are over 300 comments on the article in the NY Times that are overwhelmingly supportive of the ESA and the heroic efforts to save rare species.
Confiscation of private land
The ESA enables the government to designate both public and private land as “critical habitat” for endangered animals. The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case about the application of the Endangered Species Act that enabled the federal government to designate 1,600 acres of private land as critical habitat for an endangered frog. That designation will prevent the land owner from developing the land or using it for a different purpose other than providing POTENTIAL habitat for a frog that has not been seen in that part of the country since 1965. US Fish & Wildlife also concedes that the frog cannot live on the land in its present condition and requires modification to accommodate the needs of this frog. (4)
Needless to say, private land owners aren’t enthusiastic about the loss of the use of their land for purposes other than supporting a specific rare animal.
Torreya taxifolia, commonly known as Florida nutmeg, was classified as endangered in 1984. It was attacked by a fungal blight about 70 years ago that has decimated its population in its small native range on the Florida panhandle. It is an example of one of the major obstacles to keeping rare plants alive because it is very difficult to propagate:
“Unlike most plants, the tree has so-called recalcitrant seeds, which cannot be preserved in conventional seed banks because they can’t survive drying. This necessitated the development of a tissue-culture system for the species called somatic embryogenesis. Embryos are surgically removed from fully developed seeds, then cultured in vitro to encourage the formation of multiple embryos. These can be safely preserved in a new cryogenic storage unit obtained by Atlanta Botanical Garden, in which the resulting plantlets are coaxed into a state of suspended animation at -321° Fahrenheit in liquid nitrogen.” (5)
This labor-intensive method of germinating the seeds of Torreya taxifolia has enabled scientists to grow Torreya in several botanical gardens in places distant from its native range. Tree activists want to introduce the tree to wildlands in distant locations where the fungal pathogen that is killing the tree in its native range doesn’t exist. This is called “assisted migration,” a controversial strategy that is prohibited by the ESA. Moving endangered plants and animals requires the approval of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, permission they have so far denied for Torreya.
The ESA defines the criteria for recovery and removal of endangered status. The plant must be living on its own “in the wild” and must successfully reproduce naturally for at least two generations. Given the circumstances of this rare tree and many other “conservation reliant” species, it seems they are permanently doomed to be permanently legally protected endangered species.
The ESA’s reluctance to enable the movement of species from their native ranges is inconsistent with the realities of climate change. When the climate changes, the vegetation changes. To prevent that from happening is to doom the vegetation and the animals that require the vegetation to extinction. The ESA has become an obstacle to survival, rather than a tool to ensure survival.
Improving the Endangered Species Act?
In summary, the Endangered Species Act can be improved to achieve its original purpose as a means of preventing extinctions of plants and animals, as illustrated by the examples listed above:
- Actions intended to help a rare species should not inflict further damage on the environment, such as biocontrols, pesticides, and killing other animals considered competitors.
- Plant and animal species that require permanent human intervention to survive should be removed from life support after decades of such intensive care. Humans often make that choice for themselves at the end of life and it is widely considered a humane choice. Triage is an ethical strategy in the medical profession and it should be in conservation as well.
- Private property rights should be respected by the Endangered Species Act. The political cost of such confiscations are too high a price to pay for the meager benefits to the species in question.
- If the underlying cause of an extinction is a fundamental change in the environment that cannot or will not be changed, it is pointless to aim conservation efforts at symptoms of the change, rather than causes of the change. For example, if melting Arctic ice opens a corridor between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, it is pointless to try to prevent the movement of sea life between those oceans.
- Plants and animals that can no longer survive in their native ranges because of changes in conditions, should be carefully considered for introduction to places with suitable conditions.
This wish list has nothing to do with the legislative effort to weaken the ESA. That political effort is in the service of economic interests, such as fossil fuel exploitation and mining, and is not intended to benefit the rare plants and animals presently protected by the law.
* “But under the Trump administration, at least 63 separate legislative efforts to weaken the [ESA] act have been undertaken since January 2017, according to the Centre for Biological Diversity.” New York Times, April 22, 2018.