The Butterfly Problem

Because the government doesn't have the means to preserve endangered species, let alone a coherent plan its decisions are haphazard—and private landowners often find themselves paying for the preservation of species they've never heard of
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Richard Schroeder was five when he moved into the new house. It had a big back yard that opened up into the tall grass of the dunes—his own private slice of the Oregon coast. He played there almost every day until he was ten or eleven. Then his father began taking him to play golf. Richard loved the game, and was soon working as a caddy at the country club. In college he won several regional amateur tournaments. After graduation he went into the securities business, but he still played whenever he could. And he kept thinking about the land behind his parents' house. The rippling dunes, the smell of the surf—he could create a world-class golf course, eighteen holes as good as Pebble Beach, right there in Gearhart, Oregon. People would come from thousands of miles away just to play on his course.

Dropping out of securities, he spent the mid-1970s working as a club pro, learning the golf trade. He also learned the development business. For the scheme to be profitable, the course had to be built in conjunction with a destination resort—a mixture of hotel and residential space. Schroeder was looking at a $100 million project. The acreage was split into a dozen parcels, each with a separate owner. Schroeder got them all behind the scheme and found a backer who would build it and a famous golf-course designer who would lay it out. All this took ten years—a long time, but Schroeder knew that dreams do not come true easily. Only in 1986, he says, did he learn about the "butterfly problem."

Schroeder was hardly planning to build on pristine wilderness. Part of the site is fenced off for cow pasture; the rest, to his annoyance, is strewn with beer cans and the tracks of four-wheel-drive vehicles. But the land is also one of the few remaining habitats for the rare Oregon silverspot butterfly (Speyeria zerene hippolyta). A finger-sized reddish-brown insect, S.z. hippolyta is registered as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which directs the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a branch of the Department of the Interior, to maintain a list of species that are either endangered (in imminent peril of becoming extinct) or threatened (likely to become endangered in the near future) and to fine or imprison people who "harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect" species on the list. Fines, jail—all at once Schroeder was in different territory. In addition to the usual obstacles facing developers (lawsuits, permits, bonding agents), he would now have to guarantee that his golf course could be built without killing a single Oregon silverspot butterfly.

The Endangered Species Act first gained notoriety in 1978, when the Supreme Court stopped work on an almost finished dam in Tennessee because it menaced a little-known fish. Since then the act has reached its long fingers into many aspects of American life. The Fish and Wildlife Service has forced the cancellation of one dam, in Colorado, because it put whooping cranes at risk; pushed the Bureau of Reclamation to postpone expanding another, because it jeopardized the humpbacked chub; induced Massachusetts to close beaches just north of Boston at the height of summer, to protect the piping plover; started a lengthy political battle by proposing to settle packs of gray wolves in western states; sent a warning to 600 landowners in Polk and Highlands counties, Florida, spelling out the consequences if the development of their property harms the Florida scrub jay; and hauled the town of Ranchos Palos Verdes, California, into criminal court for inadvertently driving the endangered Palos Verdes butterfly into apparent extinction, in part by turning one of its major breeding grounds into a baseball field (the suit was thrown out on a technicality).

None of this comes cheap. Buying land for the Mississippi sandhill crane has cost more than $20 million. Riverside County, California, is spending an equal sum on the Stephens' kangaroo rat, and would have authorized an additional $100 million had voters not rejected the idea. Voters will not get the chance to refuse in the Pacific Northwest, where the Fish and Wildlife Service plans to save the northern spotted owl, a native of forests in Washington, Oregon, and California, by halting most logging on 8.2 million acres, an area nearly the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. Some estimates of the cost of locking up the timber reach into the tens of billions of dollars. In the case of the California gnat-catcher, now proposed for the endangered-species list, the costs may rise even higher, for the bird lives in Los Angeles, and efforts to save it will require clamping down on the most powerful real estate market in the nation.

Richard Schroeder worked diligently to accommodate S.z. hippolyta. He met with the silverspot recovery team, the group of scientists and Fish and Wildlife Service staffers in charge of the butterfly's future. He hired the world's expert on the insect, Paul Hammond, of Oregon State University, to put together an official lepidopterist-certified conservation plan for the Fish and Wildlife Service. But all came to naught. Last March, Hammond found an additional patch of butterfly habitat. Exasperated, Schroeder's financial backers pulled the plug—it seemed they would never know where the butterfly might turn up next. When we visited Schroeder last summer, he was a deeply frustrated man. "The whole thing's crazy," he said, shaking his head. He seemed to be trying to control his anger. Society had chosen an insect over the dream of a human being, and for the life of him Schroeder couldn't see the logic in it, or how anyone was better off for it.

The Noah Principle>

The endangered species act is up for reauthorization this year, and tales like Schroeder's are why a political brawl has already begun. Most Americans would be appalled if a shopping center wiped out the last bald eagle. And it is likely that they would be dismayed to learn the fate of the obscure Tecopa pupfish, which lost its sole habitat, a hot springs in Death Valley, to a bathhouse that could easily have been redesigned to save the fish. Instead, it became the first species to be removed from the endangered list by reason of extinction. But feelings are much less certain when it comes to canceling a $100 million golf course to save a bug nobody has ever heard of.

Perhaps fifty silverspots live on the land for Schroeder's project. How can anyone imagine that they are worth keeping in place of a multimillion dollar resort? On the other hand, how can anyone sanction the elimination of a species from this earth to profit a few people? Would the decision be different if the land housed five insects, rather than fifty? Or if it held not butterflies but bald eagles? What if chemicals within butterflies turn out to have medical benefits, whereas eagles are useful only as a national symbol? And what if saving the eagle required canceling not one but ten resorts?

Until recent decades Americans were untroubled by such questions. The nation was still empty. It didn't seem possible that preserving a few animals could impose real hardship. There seemed no need to choose between a species and economic growth. But now the country's empty corners are filling up, and biologists warn that in the next decade or two the fate of thousands of species will be decided. In making those decisions, ordinary notions of balancing the benefits against the costs may seem inappropriate, inapplicable, or even immoral. Yet any time we decide that a course of action makes some entity "better off"—butterfly, golf-course builder, or society as a whole—we are perforce judging that whatever the benefits, they are greater than the costs. At present these decisions are governed by the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, the act fails to balance costs and benefits meaningfully. Indeed, it is put together in such a way that it explicitly avoids the terrible choices that must be faced.

Federal wildlife-protection laws go back to the end of the past century, when a famous poacher named Ed Howell slaughtered bison in Yellowstone National Park with impunity because no statute forbade it; public outrage at Howell's cheeky remarks to the newspapers pushed Congress into passing the Yellowstone Park Protection Act of 1894. Other laws followed. Mostly aimed at poachers, they cost society little, and roused little opposition. In 1964 the Bureau of Sports Fisheries and Wildlife, the bureaucratic ancestor of today's Fish and Wildlife Service, compiled a "redbook" of sixty-three endangered species. Assembled informally by a panel of nine biologists, the redbook was the government's first endangered-species list. Laws passed in 1966 and 1969 directed the Department of the Interior to formalize the list and to protect the species on it by acquiring their habitats. These statutes were weak—they did not actually ban killing members of endangered species except in national wildlife refuges. When President Richard M. Nixon called for stringent legislation in 1972, the bid fell on receptive ears. Congress passed the Endangered Species Act by a large majority in December of 1973, and Nixon quickly signed it. Neither seems to have had a clue about what they were setting in motion.

"They thought they were writing a law about saving bald eagles and elk- what I call the 'charismatic megafauna,'" says Dennis Murphy, the director of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford. "Instead, they got a law protecting species"—a difference with unexpected implications. According to Edward O. Wilson, a renowned entomologist at Harvard, there are only a few thousand types of the mammals and birds that people like to anthropomorphize, but there may be something on the order of 100 million species, of which only about 1.4 million have been named. Creatures such as fungi, insects, and bacteria form the vast majority of this horde; mammals, birds, and other vertebrates are little but colorful epiphenomena. (Asked what years of research had taught him about God, J.B.S. Haldane, one of the founders of evolutionary biology, replied that the Creator had an "inordinate fondness for beetles.") Those not initiated into the ways of biological thought may equate "preserving global biodiversity" with saving whales and whooping cranes, but scientists who use the phrase are concerned with protecting organisms that most people wouldn't hesitate to step on.

Because the majority of species are unknown, no one can say with certainty how many are going extinct. Moreover, extinction itself is hard to observe—one can never be certain that a few specimens somewhere have not been overlooked. Thought for more than a decade to be extinct, the Shoshone pupfish, a cousin of the Tecopa pupfish, turned up in its native hot springs in 1986. The long-lost black-footed ferret was rediscovered accidentally a decade ago, when a ranch dog near Meeteetse, Wyoming, returned home with a dead one in its mouth; excited conservationists then found a small colony of the weasel-like creatures. But no one doubts that extinction occurs, and most biologists believe that it is now taking place at an accelerating rate. Worldwide, Wilson guesses, the rate may be 50,000 species a year. Figures for the United States are surprisingly uncertain, but Peter Hoch, of the Missouri Botanical Garden, has calculated what he calls a "rough but defensible approximation": some 4,000 domestic species are at risk of extinction within five to ten years.

Biologists advance three arguments for avoiding this prospect. On a utilitarian level, living creatures are the source of almost all foods and many medicines; wiping out even the humblest mold might deprive humanity of the genes for a future penicillin. Wilson has calculated that the genetic information encoded in the DNA from the common mouse, if represented as ordinary-size letters, would almost fill the fifteen editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica printed since 1768. Who, conservationists ask, would like to see that information vanish, along with its potential benefit to humanity?

More generally, the web of species around us helps generate soil, regulate freshwater supplies, dispose of waste, and maintain the quality of the atmosphere. Pillaging nature to the point where it cannot perform these functions is dangerously foolish. Simple self-protection is thus a second motive for preserving biodiversity. When DDT was sprayed in Borneo, the biologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich relate in their book Extinction (1981), it killed all the houseflies. The gecko lizards that preyed on the flies ate their pesticide-filled corpses and died. House cats consumed the dying lizards; they died too. Rats descended on the villages, bringing bubonic plague. Incredibly, the housefly in this case was part of an intricate system that controlled human disease. To make up for its absence, the government was forced to parachute cats into the area.

These reasons for protecting biodiversity are practical and anthropocentric. But the "foremost argument for the preservation of all nonhuman species," the Ehrlichs argue in Extinction, is neither. It is the "religious" belief "that our fellow passengers on Spaceship Earth . . . have a right to exist." Far from being extreme, the "Noah Principle," as this argument was named by the biologist David Ehrenfeld, is shared by many scientists and conservationists. As a species, the Noah Principle says, the smallest grub has the same right to exist as the biggest whale; so does every species of cockroach, every species of stinging nettle (all plants are included in these arguments), and even the microorganisms that cause malaria and syphilis. Anthropologists refuse to categorize cultures as "higher" and "lower" civilizations, because all have intrinsic worth; biologists believe that there is no inherent difference in value between "higher" and "lower" organisms. All are precious, and human beings have a moral responsibility to each and every one. "It's a matter of stewardship," Wilson says.

The practical and moral costs of losing the nation's biological endowment may be enormous. But so may be the cost of saving it. To halt the spasm of extinction, Wilson and Paul Ehrlich wrote in a special biodiversity issue of Science last August,

the first step . . . would be to cease 'developing' any more relatively undisturbed land. Every new shopping center built in the California chaparral, every hectare of tropical forest cut and burned, every swamp converted into a rice paddy or shrimp farm means less biodiversity. . . . [Even so,] ending direct human incursions into remaining relatively undisturbed habitats would be only a start. . . . The indispensable strategy for saving our fellow living creatures and ourselves in the long run is . . . to reduce the scale of human activities.

"To reduce the scale of human activities" implies telling people to make do with less; nations must choose between their natural heritage and the economic well-being of their citizens.

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