The Endangered Species Act at 30
December 30, 2003 12:30 PM   Subscribe

The Endangered Species Act marked its 30th anniversary this December. Some say we need it while others say we need to change it. Whatever its faults, many species have benefited from it.
posted by homunculus (5 comments total)
Oops, the last link was suppossed to go to these success stories.
posted by homunculus at 12:41 PM on December 30, 2003

If we knew then what we know now, how would the ESA have been different? Here are some thoughts of how the ESA could be improved:

1) Give habitat a mild/moderate/severe rating like plants and animals. A severely endangered animal that eats only one kind of severely endangered plant, that both live on a single mountaintop with a unique climate, well, has problems.

2) Should endangered mean everywhere the lifeform lives, even if it is successful elsewhere? A "common" species, endangered only where resources are at a premium should be balanced against other demands on those resources.

3) Should the Act include non-endangered and/or non-native species *reduction*, to "make a hole" for endangered species?

4) Mass breeding facilities. Since the vast majority of endangered species are plants and insects, reproducing their environment is less demanding then for a Condor.
(Again, dependent on how much viable habitat they have
to be released to.)

5) Expanding habitat. This can be tricky. But put endangered non-native species in *similar* habitats, in hopes for expanding genetic diversity. Eventually, unless they are "seamless" in their new environment, they will have to be xplanted.

6) Temporarily unbalancing habitat to make it more amenable to larger numbers of the endangered species. This could be lots of things, from adding fertilizer to the soil, to releasing insects that the species eat, giving it the chance to grow and familiarize itself with the place.

7) Designating some residential encroachment areas as "controlled ecosystem", so only certain plants and trees can live there, as well as restrictions on pets. Another method is to reward residents for maintaining natural growth.

8) Paying farmers in encroachment areas to grow crops specifically for the purpose of being "ravaged" by the local endangered fauna. Perhaps a crop that attracts an insect that the endangered animals eat.

9) Genetic manipulation of species that no longer have any place to live. A closely recorded manipulation that makes them hardier is wiser than captive breeding forever.
posted by kablam at 1:29 PM on December 30, 2003

3) Should the Act include non-endangered and/or non-native species *reduction*, to "make a hole" for endangered species?

There are a number of more recent conservation biology theories that probably aren't included in the act. One is a focus on identifying and combatting "threatening processes", and or course the introduction of invasive exotic organisms is a major one in many systems. However, I'd stop short at reducing other native but non-endangered species without detailed understanding of the ecology, unless the common species are truly at unnatural, plague population levels (we're quite happy to shoot kangaroos in Australia).

Another controversial idea is that of "Ecological Triage" - like millitary triage, it involves sorting species into three categories:

1 - Beyond hope - the species is extremely rare, in extremely restricted threatened habitat. Millions of dollars would have to be spent with no guarantee of success.
2 - Probably surviving well - the species is restricted and has shown a reduction in range and population, but provided the threats don't increase, it will probably survive.
3 - At risk but can be rescued with relatively little cost. The threatening processes are easy or inexpensive to stop, and the population size is still above the level where genetic deterioration would occur.

The aim of "Ecological Triage", then, is to not spend much money and effort on category 1 (sad loss, but no real conservation outcomes if you focus on it) and category 2 (these species should survive without intervention, but they should still be watched closely), and instead focus the bulk of conservation effort on category three: species and ecosystems that have a real chance of being saved on mass.
posted by Jimbob at 3:10 PM on December 30, 2003

I see a lot of grey area there. However, I am of the mind that science/technology will dig us out of a lot of holes made by man and mother nature. The world biological index and genome projects will help a lot reconstituting endangered species. (I so hope to see a wooly mammoth in my lifetime. So do a lot of scientists working on just that eventuality.)

Ironic, I suppose, that for some of the real hard luck cases, we will end up having to build something like Biosphere 2, or the 'Valley Forge' domes of the movie "Silent Running".

There is also the inevitable conflict between "natural" and "man made" organisms, when the latter is superior to the former in its ecosystem. Nothing so radical as species, more like better breeds of the same thing.
If a flower is dying out, and with minor genetic modification it can survive, does it have a right to supplant its weaker brother? What if the "natural" plant isn't dying out, just threatened?

Then there is the debate between "natural" organisms, and "man made" organisms that "do" something. Plants that are engineered to uptake toxic metals, for example. Is an almost identical organism "better" because it "does" something for our benefit? "Better" enough to replace the existing model? (Remember that we have been doing this for years with food plants.)
posted by kablam at 8:01 PM on December 30, 2003

There's may be an ultimate logic that says "Humans are part of the environment too. Humans have evolved the ability to make these genetic changes in other organisms. Therefore, it's just another ecological interaction." It's a very logical argument, but I think ultimately a dangerous one - it basically says "anything goes", when we really know it doesn't.
posted by Jimbob at 10:46 PM on December 30, 2003

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