By Donella Meadows
–April 15, 1993–
“We have erected a monument to commemorate the funeral of a species,” said Aldo Leopold, dedicating a memorial to the passenger pigeon in 1947. “It symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.”
“For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss…. In this fact, other than in Mr. DuPont’s nylon or Mr. Vannevar Bush’s bombs, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts.”
In 1973 Americans went beyond mourning over extinguished species. We wrote into law our resolve not to cause more extinctions. Our Endangered Species Act was unique in the world. Now, 20 years later, it is up for renewal, and it faces a fight.
Some developers, dam builders, miners, loggers, and farmers are out to gut the Endangered Species Act, if they can’t eliminate it entirely. Environmentalists think it needs more teeth and more funding. Both sides complain that the Act isn’t working well, for different reasons, all of which are right.
The Act requires the government to make a list of all threatened or endangered species on land or in water, inside or outside the nation. The Fish and Wildlife Service or the Marine Fisheries Service are to carry out a recovery plan for each domestic listed species. Any federal action — highway building, bomb testing, dam construction — that would jeopardize a listed species must be redesigned or stopped. It is a federal offense for a citizen to buy, sell, export, import, “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect” an endangered species. That part about harassing and harming can stop even a private development project in its tracks.
Its critics claim that the Endangered Species Act sacrifices people for slimy creatures, but in fact the Act calls for economic balancing at every step except the first — the question of whether a species is endangered. That is to be determined by science. Of course economics and politics do creep in. The spotted owl is one of several species whose listing was purposely delayed until environmentalists sued the government to make it enforce the law.
It’s actually surprising how few major economic activities have run headlong against an endangered species — the Tellico Dam and the snail darter, the Northwest loggers and the spotted owl. Between 1987 and 1991 federal agencies consulted with the Fish and Wildlife Service or Marine Fisheries Service over 71,808 projects. Only 19 of them were blocked on endangered species grounds.
There’s no doubt that the Endangered Species Act has saved species. The California gray whale has recovered enough to support a whale-watching business — one boating firm takes in $250,000 from 12,000 passengers a year. Whooping cranes are coming back in Texas. Peregrine falcons now nest on New York skyscrapers, feeding on pigeons. Bald eagles in the lower 48 states have multiplied from less than 800 pairs to more than 3000. The American alligator and brown pelican have fully recovered.
But the biological diversity of America is still diminishing. Of the 760 listed domestic species, only five have been de-listed. About 200 are stable or increasing. The rest are losing ground. At least two listed species — the dusky seaside sparrow and the Tecopa pupfish — are gone forever.
The primary reason for failure, where there has been failure, is late action. Finding out whether a species is endangered takes field surveys and biological studies. It costs money and takes time. In the past 10 years 34 species have gone extinct while awaiting listing. Another 400 vulnerable species are still on the waiting list, plus 3000 believed to be less urgent. The government has recovery plans for only about half the listed species.
Most animals at the time of listing have populations of only about 1000. Listed plants have on average only 120 individuals. When populations are so small, recovery can be wildly expensive. At the extreme, specialists in labs have to hatch out and hand feed baby condors. If the recovery effort had started sooner, there would have been enough undisturbed condor habitat and enough adult condors to bring the babies up for free.
Late action also causes economic havoc. It would have been possible to work out a plan for sustainable logging plus owls, if the question had been raised before 90 percent of the old-growth forests were gone. Highways can be routed around bogs where threatened butterflies live, if you know the butterfly is there before you lay out the highway. Most developers say they can live with an endangered species, if they just know what and where it is before they invest a lot of money in land and plans.
Listings and recovery plans come so late because the Endangered Species Act has been woefully underfunded. The Fish and Wildlife Service budget for endangered species has been on the order of $40 million a year. That’s the cost of one mile of interstate highway. It’s one-fifth of what the Forest Service spent to subsidize the overharvesting of the National Forests in 1990. It’s one-eighth of the amount Fish and Wildlife spends maintaining populations of a few dozen game animals and fish — and it’s supposed to cover somewhere between 700 and 4000 species!
It doesn’t take much superiority over the other creatures on our planet to extinguish them and then mourn for them. It would certainly be more admirable, and more to our own advantage as well, to co-exist with them. An improved Endangered Species Act could work much better for all species, including us.
More on that next time.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993