Joe Roman


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

Cover Interview of September 27, 2011

The wide angle

I started Listed when I was working in Washington, DC, as a policy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  At the time the Endangered Species Act was under attack.  (Since just a few years after it was enacted, it has always been under attack.) In 2006, Congressman Richard Pombo of California accused the act of failing to protect species and of costing too much. He managed to pass some very controversial changes to the act through the House of Representatives. Though cooler heads eventually prevailed in the Senate, I wanted to see if Pombo’s claims were true.

At that time, about one tenth of listed species were judged to be improving, a third stable, another third declining, and about a quarter of unknown status. Those who see the glass as half empty noted that only a tenth of species were improving and only about 30 species have been recovered since the act was passed. The Endangered Species Act’s defenders, who see the glass as half full, noted that most listed species whose status was known were either stable or improving.

Once protected, animals and plants in the United States are more likely to move from the high-risk endangered status to the lower risk of threatened. One analysis, based on the risks of extinction, found that 262 species would have disappeared in the United States between 1973 and 2003 had the Act not been passed.

At the time I started working on the book, 35 listed species had been declared or were presumed extinct. That’s 35 too many, but it indicates that the Act might have rescued hundreds of species.

Beyond that, Listed looks at how species are being protected on the ground and in the water. I visited several areas—from a small community on the coast of North Carolina building amidst to a humpback feeding ground off Massachusetts, a wolf pack in Yellowstone, to a up the road in Vermont, once home to a roost of bats.  How do these species change how people view nature?

I was also interested in how the law has changed since it was first passed.  There’s good evidence to suggest that what was once a prohibitory act—thou shall not build—is now a permitting act. You can build as long as there is no net loss of a species.

This flexibility in the act was added in the 1990s under Secretary Bruce Babbitt.  At the time, the Republican Congress was gunning for major changes in the Endangered Species Act.  Babbitt suggested that most landowners simply wanted certainty, so he instituted changes such as Safe Harbor Agreements and the No Surprises policy.  These policies were put in place to prevent landowners from enacting a scorched-earth policy: If they cut down the habitat, they wouldn’t have endangered species issues.  Babbitt and his folks suggested that if landowners could work with the government, with the help of tax incentives, tensions could be diffused.

His changes were controversial—Babbitt’s deputy assistant secretary Donald Barry told me that he and his colleagues thought that the secretary “had gone off the rails” when he first proposed the ideas—but they reduced the overall hostility from landowners toward the Act.  Ralph Costa, in charge of red-cockaded woodpecker recovery, told me the hardest thing he had to do after Safe Harbor was to field questions from small landowners.  Once they signed they agreement, several property owners were eager to get a few of the birds. (The recovery plan required new lands to have the space for at least ten groups, or more than 750 acres.)

For years, Costa recalled, the worst complaints he got from landowners were, “Come get these damn birds off my property.” Now he had to explain why the government wouldn’t give them an endangered species.