Monday, March 07, 2005

Endangered Species: The ICU is Full

The Endangered Species Act is the equivalent of intensive care.

I was reminded of that yesterday at a community discussion on biodiversity, land protection and land use planning that I helped organize. The main speaker was Michael Klemens, Ph.D., a herpetologist and conservation biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. It was Michael whom I was referring to a couple of weeks ago when I described a conversation I had had with the scientist who wrote the federal recovery plan for the bog turtle when it was listed in 1997 as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

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.”

Yesterday's discussion was about how communities and individuals could protect an important landscape-scale habitat. During the course of his talk, Michael referred to his bog turtle work, and he mentioned something in the recovery plan that I had overlooked -- namely, the estimate of how long it would take the bog turtle to recover and be de-listed, if the plan were carried out. Recovery plans for endangered or threatened species are required to include that estimate.

The plan that Michael wrote predicts that the bog turtle recovery will take 50 years.

Why so long? De-listing the brown pelican, the American alligator and the peregrine falcon didn’t take that long.

Lack of funding is a problem, he said. But for most endangered species, recovery and de-listing is hindered by something just as bad.

"They're too far gone," he said.

In other words, the problem with the Endangered Species Act is that it waits until a species is endangered. It is the intensive care unit of biodiversity, and inevitably some critical patients are going to be lost. Michael's message was that if we care about wildlife and biodiversity and protecting intact habitats, we can't wait until the patient is critical. We need to intervene earlier.

Addendum: The Thoughts from Kansas blog has three recent posts on endangered species -- pygmy rabbits, marbled murrelets and their habitat, and this one, with a fascinating link to the Anchorage Daily News, on wood buffalo and an account of a controversy over the dwarf wedge mussel in North Carolina.

And here's a list (from the website of an organization that does not like the Endangered Species Act) of the species that have been de-listed: 25 in all, but only six because they're recovered.


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