Joe Roman


On his book Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act

Cover Interview of September 27, 2011

In a nutshell

The first listed species to make headlines after the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973 was the snail darter, a three-inch fish that stood in the way of a dam on the Little Tennessee River.  The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which noted that even though Congress had dedicated millions of dollars to completing the Tellico Dam, the original legislation was clear.  The protection of the darter was required by the Act, and the court put a permanent halt to construction on the Little Tennessee. So Congress changed the rules.  A young Al Gore voted for the dam.  Freshman congressman Newt Gingrich sided with the fish.  The Tellico was built, and the snail darter went extinct on the Little Tennessee, though the species swims on in nearby waterways.  A lot has changed since then, but the Act continues to come under pressure from skeptics who believe it doesn’t work or is too costly.

Several studies have shown that the Act can help species recover.  The alligator, once so rare that even biologists had a hard time finding it, now numbers more than a million in Florida, and the brown pelican and Pacific gray whale have recovered.  The Act has likely saved more than two hundred species from extinction since it was passed in 1973. And many species, once in precipitous decline, are now stable or improving.

I also take a look at the economics of species protection. Is it really as costly as its critics claim?  There’s ample evidence that once a species is protected, it acts as a surrogate for the ecosystem that it depends on.  To protect a species you need to protect its habitat and its ecological community.  In protecting endangered mussels on the Apalachicola River, we’re also protecting the nursery for shrimp, crabs, and bass, and a fishery worth more than $200 million a year.  The forest connected to mussel habitat provides flood and storm protection.  This is just part of the natural capital provided by native species and their ecosystems.