By Donella Meadows
–September 11, 1997–
The Endangered Species Act was supposed to be re-authorized in 1993, but no one has dared try it.
Congressional environmentalists, mostly Democrats and a few Eastern Republicans, have been afraid that bringing the subject up will give the rip-roaring right the chance to cripple the Act fatally. Anti-environmentalists, mostly Republicans and a few Western and Southern Democrats, would rather not gut this popular law out in the spotlight. They prefer to work in the shadows through special exceptions and financial starvation of the agencies that are supposed to protect wildlife.
So the Act limps on, half-heartedly renewed one year at a time. Citizen groups have to sue the government to get species put on the endangered list. Putting a critter on the list does little good as there are fewer and fewer public resources to protect it.
Meanwhile, out in nature, which knows nothing of politics, America’s natural wealth slowly disappears. It’s painful to watch. Every day I get gloomy e-mail bulletins. Here are some (shortened and edited for clarity by me) that have come from GrassRoots Environmental Effectiveness Network (rfeatherclarknet) just during the month of August. Multiply them by the dozen every month, and you get a sad view of what happens when a nation pursues money at the expense of life.
BUTTERFLY POACHER: Adriano Teobaldelli was caught attempting to smuggle 51 butterflies from Sequoia National Park. Officials found 200 rare butterflies in the poacher’s motel room with notes detailing that he had captured them from Bryce Canyon, Arches and Canyonlands parks in Utah and Mesa Verde in Colorado. Endangered butterflies can be sold for as much as $500 a pair. “Poachers from all over the world come into our national parks and turn them into the last supermarkets for traffickers of illegal wildlife,” said Fish and Wildlife Service’s David Klinger.
SONGBIRD DECLINE: Pressed by litigation by environmentalists, the US Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station has published “Songbird Ecology in Southwestern Ponderosa Pine Forests.” The report blames songbird decline on salvage logging, old growth logging and overgrazing. The study shows 77% of all songbirds in New Mexico for which sufficient information exists have declined significantly since 1964.
RID-A-BIRD: Weyerhaeuser has been placed on probation for five years for poisoning two protected birds. The timber company pleaded guilty in federal court and has agreed to spend more than $100,000 to study new ways to control unwanted birds. The company will halt the use of a controversial device called Rid-A-Bird that kills birds with a perch soaked with a nerve poison. The Court found that Weyerhaeuser ignored warnings not to use the device.
HORSESHOE CRABS: Overharvesting of horseshoe crabs threatens the survival of several species of migratory birds. Horseshoe crab eggs are critical food for six bird species that migrate up the east coast from southern Argentina to the Arctic. Three of those species have declined by 25 percent this year. “You pull at one thread and everything starts to come undone,” said Stephen Atzert, refuge manager for New Jersey’s Cape May National Wildlife Refuge.
FLORIDA BIRDS: The state of Florida lists 8 bird species as endangered and another 28 as threatened or of special concern. Heavy development of coastal lands and inland wetlands is destroying the habitat of birds such as the heron, wood stork and white ibis. “As we modify the habitat in Florida, the birds that migrate here aren’t going to find what they need. They expect to come back to a certain assemblage of trees, and all of a sudden it’s a shopping mall,” said National Wildlife Federation’s Craig Tufts.
HORNED LIZARD: Tucson Herpetological Society, Horned Lizard Conservation Society, Defenders of Wildlife, and other conservation organizations intend to sue the US Fish and Wildlife Service for denying listing of the flat-tailed horned lizard under the ESA. Plaintiffs say the lizard meets 4 of 5 conditions that should trigger listing.
STEELHEAD TROUT: The National Marine Fisheries Service announced on Monday it will protect the steelhead trout under the ESA in five areas but postpone a decision on five additional regions until February. The steelhead population in California has fallen by 75% since World War II, primarily due to logging, gravel mining and dam building. “Those fish needed protection years ago. Delay of another six months is scientifically unjustified and very risky,” said Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund’s Claudia Polsky.
Pollution, poison, logging, grazing, dam-building, mining, harvesting, poaching, shopping malls. As our own enterprise expands, we move into the space, the resources, the food supplies and nesting places of all other creatures. It’s no mystery why more and more species have to be declared endangered, why it costs more and more to protect them, and why doing so steps on more and more political toes. After three hundred years of steady industriousness, we are finally going after the last old-growth forests, wetlands, prairies, and coastal scrub habitats.
The scarcer a resource gets, whether it’s a centuries-old Douglas fir or the last undeveloped space in Orange County, the more valuable it gets in money terms. So the louder the yells and the greater the political pressure to let the incursions continue. I suppose it was inevitable that the Endangered Species Act would fail most decisively just when it is most needed.
The only trouble is, in nature you pull at one thread and everything starts to come undone.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997