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.
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.
In Listed, I examined a few high-profile species where there appeared to be a clear conflict between conservation and economics: the red-cockaded woodpecker that knocked down a city, a pair of endangered mussels that sucked Atlanta dry, the gray wolves that outhunted elk hunters. What I found was that there was often benefits of species protection that came directly to local communities.
Let’s look at the conflict between Atlanta and the fat threeridge and purple bankclimber, two endangered mussels on the Apalachicola River. As I mentioned, oysters, commercial fish, and even tupelo honey are dependent on the same waters that sustain these endangered species. The river supports 1,200 oystermen, 25 packinghouses, and hundreds of fishermen and beekeepers.
In Yellowstone, one study found that wolves are now a $35-million-a-year tourist industry. In fact, Americans spend more than $120 billion a year hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching. That’s more than the Super Bowl. It’s more than professional football. It’s more than was spent on all spectator sports, amusement parks, casinos, bowling alleys, and ski slopes combined.
And it’s much more than just tourism. When you protect dunes for endangered mice, you also protect the homes behind them from storms and erosion. There are tradeoffs in all our policy decisions, of course, but endangered species should be seen as sentinels for a healthy environment and their protection can help all of us.
I hope that Listed will help reframe the argument about protecting endangered species.
For too long the focus has been on the costs of protection. But since the passage of the Endangered Species Act on 1973, there have been several developments in economics and epidemiology that show just how dependent we are on biodiversity for our well-being.
Many studies have revealed that the loss of biodiversity can increase the spread of infectious diseases such as West Nile virus, hanta virus, and Lyme disease. The collapse of an ecological community can result in the rise of a generalist species—such as the white-footed mouse or the deer mouse—that host a viral or bacterial pathogen. As other species—which don’t pass on the disease—drop out, more people become infected. A healthy ecological community can be a buffer against such zoonotic illnesses.
Biodiversity and wilderness protection belongs at the top of our priority list. If we value the many benefits of species protection, we’re more likely to do everything in our power to reduce the extinction rate, to stem the tide of the sixth mass extinction.
Joe Roman is a conservation biologist and author at the University of Vermont. He received his Ph.D. in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology from Harvard University. Roman’s conservation research has been published in Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, and other journals. His science and nature writing has appeared in The New York Times, New Scientist, Audubon, Conservation, and other venues. Joe Roman is the author of Listed, featured on Rorotoko, and of the cultural history Whale (Reaktion 2006). More information can be found at www.joeroman.com.