Monday, February 14, 2005

Endangered Species Recovery: "There's No Money for It"

I’m not going to claim to have done massive research on the Endangered Species Act, but what I do know, combined with my instincts as a reporter, lead me to label as specious the argument that the ESA has been a failure because fewer than 20 threatened or endangered plants or animals have recovered sufficiently to be removed from the list.

Josh Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas and Jon Christensen at The Uneasy Chair have been blogging about the Endangered Species Act. For the past six or eight months I’ve been doing some preliminary research for a book about bog turtles (Glyptemis muhlenbergii), a federally threatened species that lives in 12 eastern States. I’m interested in bog turtles because they have specific habitat requirements; their presence is an indicator of high-quality habitat and, conversely, their absence is an indicator of poor land use practices; until very recently bog turtles lived in the marshes of a narrow stream corridor within walking distance of my house; and I happen to know two of the best bog turtle biologists in North America.

The northern population of the bog turtle was listed as federally threatened in 1997 and several years after that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its formal bog turtle recovery plan. Last summer I read the listing documents and the recovery plan (click here and scroll up for a pdf of the recovery plan), and made an appointment to interview the scientist who wrote the latter (I don’t know if it’s true of all species, but in this case the Fish and Wildlife Service contracted out to an expert, who devised the plan in consultation with government biologists).

The plan includes a detailed list of tasks to help the bog turtle recover. These include using existing land use and development regulations to protect turtles; protecting turtle habitat through purchase, long-term stewardship agreements and voluntary partnerships with landowners; regular population surveys and monitoring; genetic research; a reintroduction program where appropriate; and better law enforcement to reduce poaching, among other steps.

Geographically, the plan breaks the bog turtle’s range into recovery units, and sets goals for each unit. And the plan ends with a detailed implementation schedule.

The scientist who wrote the plan is very smart. He’s an accomplished scientist who has thoroughly studied the connection between development and biodiversity; and he’s passionate about his work and about the reptiles and amphibians that he studies.

So I asked him if he could give me a couple of examples of where the recovery plan has been at least moderately successful. He looked at me as if I had asked him for a recipe for turtle soup.

“Nobody’s doing it,” he said. “There’s no money for it.”

And that was that. The federal government had gone to the trouble of listing the bog turtle as a threatened species, and this first-rate conservation biologist had written a recovery plan that in all respects seemed excellent. And yet as of now, it will have no effect on whether bog turtles recover or continue to fade slowly toward extinction.

Does that mean the Endangered Species Act is a failure? Not to me. All it means is that the ESA is not enough of a priority to be allocated the money it needs to determine if it is a success or a failure.


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