Saving Species

By Keith Kloor | October 1, 2009 12:04 pm

While mulling the 6-year disappearance of the possibly extinct Chinese paddlefish, Andy Revkin reminds us of the enduring problem with our own approach to species protection:

we have an Endangered Species Act intended to save species on the brink, but not a Thriving Ecosystems Act that tries to monitor and sustain diverse communities of species before bad things happen.

This is of course true, but it’s worth noting that we also have a very flawed and controversial Endangered Species Act (ESA), which, for political reasons, will remain flawed and controversial for the foreseeable future. That’s because of this dynamic: every so often (usually when they’re the top dogs in D.C.) conservative Republicans have tried and failed to weaken the act; fearing this, enviros and Dems have chosen not to revisit the ESA–even to improve and strengthen it. Better to have an imperfect ESA goes that rationale, than to risk exposing it to Republican machinations.

So when I examined this stalemate exactly ten years ago for The Sciences (sadly, now defunct), in a piece entitled “Vanishing Act,” I wrote this:

Hailed at its birth a quarter century ago as the strongest and most visionary law of its kind, today the ESA is besieged  from all sides. Developers and local landowners contend that the law is far too sweeping, that it violates their rights and stifles economic growth; environmental advocates complain that the act is poorly enforced, and that it is undermined by insufficient funding and bureaucratic delay. Meanwhile, scientists bemoan the ESA’s “emergency room” approach, which calls for species to be resuscitated only when they are at death’s door.

Legally and politically, nothing has changed since then. However, the point of that ten-year old story was to contrast the traditional single species rescue paradigm with a more holistic one then being implemented in South Florida by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS).  Called the Multi-Species Recovery Plan, its purpose, as I wrote at the time, was to

protect more than 600 imperiled species in an area that includes twenty-three distinct ecological communities, from hardwood hammock forests to saw-grass marshes and coral reefs.

As former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said when the multi-species plan was being unveiled:

We’ve learned that you can’t do these things one species at a time. We have to come to grips with the entire landscape.

In 2005, when I was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine, I wrote another story about how this ecosystem approach was being implemented on an even more comprehensive scale in Tuscon, Arizona. And this effort came after years of meetings and coalition building that involved local politicians, university ecologists, town planners, activists, and the business sector. Called the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, its aim is to rescue 54 plant and animal species.  But as I wrote in my story,

that’s only one cornerstone of something much grander in design. The plan also recognizes that ecosystem repair, via the creation of linked biological corridors, is essential to the recovery of those 54 species, and that creating those corridors, in turn, requires measures to manage Tucson’s sprawling growth. To this end the plan steers future development away from ecologically important areas””perennial streams, for instance, and groves of paloverde, saguaro, and ironwood””and toward existing urban cores. The species targeted for protection were expressly chosen to represent the Sonoran Desert’s diverse web of life.

So while the landmark but badly aging Endangered Species Act remains in place, ecologists have found a way to bypass its limitations. Whether the novel Florida and Arizona efforts are working as intended is another question, one that I should probably try to convince an editor to take a fresh look at.

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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