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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The Fall of a Sparrow

The heart of the last dusky seaside sparrow sits in a freezer in the genetics department of the University of Georgia. Orange Band (the bird was named for the colored identity band on its leg) had lived in captivity for seven years, much of the time in a cage at Walt Disney World. It died on June 16, 1987, twenty years after the Fish and Wildlife Service included the dusky seaside sparrow on its first official endangered species list. Orange Band's death, environmentalists said, was a signal failure of the Endangered Species Act. But it might be more accurate to say that the bird was a casualty of trying to follow the Noah Principle on a limited budget.

Knowing that it did not have the resources to save every species, the agency sought impartial scientific criteria that would enable it to focus its efforts on some species rather than others; politics and guesswork would be eliminated. From the beginning this goal proved elusive, and the sparrow's disappearance came at the end of a roller-coaster ride through the rankings.

Ammodramus maritima nigrescens, as scientists now refer to the dusky, was discovered in 1872. One of nine subspecies of the seaside sparrow (ornithologists dispute the exact number), the dusky was native to the complex waterlogged terrain of east central Florida. Scattered through this coastal area are brackish marshes that breed mosquitoes at a staggering rate—more than a million can spring from a square yard of mucky turf in a day. The marshes also bred dusky seaside sparrows. Less than six inches in size, their bellies streaked in black and white, duskies were finicky creatures; they nested only in patches of marsh grass that had no shrubs or trees in sight. Because this kind of open space is hard to come by, A.m. nigrescens had the smallest range of any North American bird: two bits of Brevard County, Florida. One was a few miles inland, near the St. Johns River; the other was offshore, on marshy Merritt Island.

This part of Florida first acquired renown in the late 1950s, when NASA bought Merritt Island and turned it into what is now called the John F. Kennedy Space Center. (Cape Canaveral is a point on the east side of the island.) Many daunting obstacles faced the country on its path to space, but one of the worst was the mosquito. "I was grilling hamburgers outdoors, and hordes of mosquitoes were landing on them to get the blood," recalls Herbert Kale, the vice-president for ornithology of the Florida Audubon Society, describing a visit to a piece of Florida wetland with no mosquito control. "You'd flip the meat and dozens of mosquitoes would burn up as they clung to it." Pesticides had become available in the 1940s, and Brevard County drenched itself with them until the mosquitoes became resistant. Switching tactics in 1955, the county sliced the marsh into large squares, built low walls around the edges, and waited for the pools to be filled up by rain, storm tides, and pumping. Because salt-marsh mosquitoes can't lay their eggs in standing fresh water, NASA employees were soon able to drive to work with the windows open. Bird watchers were thrilled too. The paddy-like pools attracted huge numbers of herons, egrets, and ducks. Allan Cruickshank, a well-known ornithologist who lived nearby, urged NASA to turn the northern part of its land, bought as a buffer zone, into a wildlife refuge. The space agency was happy to oblige -it was never going to build on the land—and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge was born.

The refuge didn't help the dusky. DDT and other pesticides had shrunk the Merritt Island population, never large, by perhaps 70 percent; impounding the marsh reduced it further, because it killed the grass habitat that duskies required. By 1968, when, at Cruickshank's suggestion, a graduate student from the University of Wisconsin surveyed the refuge, no more than thirty-five males lived on the few hundred remaining acres of dusky habitat. (Females were much harder to spot, and researchers didn't try to count them.) Five years later only two males were left on Merritt Island.

On the mainland the second population was in trouble too. Ranchers drained the marshes with ditches, turning them into pasture. To provide green forage, they burned off the dead marsh grass. Several hundred duskies had managed to hang on, but the situation was desperate. A.m. nigrescens had support from bird watchers and scientists like Cruickshank and Kale. They lobbied the Jacksonville branch of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which in l969 begged headquarters to buy out the ranchers, a measure that it said "could mean the difference between survival and extinction of a species."

The agency now had to decide what it was going to do about the dusky. Was it going to lead the bird onto the ark, or strand it ashore? The choice was not easy. In 1969 Congress had appropriated $1.3 million for acquiring endangered-species habitat. Several thousand acres of Florida swamp would cost more than a million dollars. Spending that money on A.m. nigrescens would mean not spending it on other, equally desperate species. Should the Office of Endangered Species save the dusky and lose, say, the American alligator or the key deer? What Solomon could tell the agency which course to follow?

Absent biblical authority, C. Eugene Ruhr, the office's supervisor for domestic species, had to figure out the answer himself. He thought the decision could best be made by coming up with a coherent set of priorities. In 1971 he set down a method for ranking species, by giving them a numerical score in each of ten biological and economic categories. At the end Ruhr added the ten scores together; the higher the sum, the higher the priority awarded to that species.

Critics attacked the procedure as ridiculous. Because scores were subjective, the same species might be ranked differently by different people. Moreover, the plan suffered from what Lynn Llewellyn, a service officer, later called the "apples + oranges - grapes = fruit salad" problem. A species might receive a 50 in the population-change category and another 50 in the recovery-cost category. But nobody knew if one 50 should count as much as the other, and so the system was never fully applied.

Determined to produce a rational basis for making choices, Ruhr asked two migratory-bird specialists, Howard M. Wight and the aptly named Rollin Sparrowe, to come up with a less subjective one. In 1973 the two men created a plan that separated biological factors from non-biological factors, such as public interest in a species, creating two priority systems. In a test of the biological priority system, the highest score awarded—78.25 out of 100—went to the (California condor. With a score of 61.75 the dusky was tied with the American peregrine falcon and the Mississippi sandhill crane. Its score would have been higher if the American Ornithologists' Union had not that year officially downgraded the bird from a full species to a mere subspecies. As a subspecies, the dusky ranked forty-second among the 180 species surveyed; as a species, it would almost certainly have ranked in the top twenty, and maybe Wight and Sparrowe would have placed it in the top ten.

Keith Schreiner, then the head of the Office of Endangered Species, was still dissatisfied. The Wight-Sparrowe system gave highest priority to species on the brink of oblivion, like the condor. These "basket cases" (Schreiner's term) were always expensive to resuscitate, which implied that the government would be spending all its money on species with little chance for success. Moreover, the system didn't take into account whether species were favored by powerful members of Congress. ("You had to allocate your resources in a way to avoid shutting off future monetary resources," Schreiner says, matter-of-factly.) In 1976 Schreiner asked another service biologist, David Marshall, to construct a third ranking system, this one directly taking into account that Capitol Hill was more likely to support what Marshall calls "glamour species" than "creepy crawlies." Reluctant to endorse a policy that courted Congress at the expense of biological principles, Marshall nonetheless produced a scheme that added in political factors. His plan combined a biological score similar to that of Wight and Sparrowe with an ecopolitical score determined by the amount of "support" for a species inside and outside the scientific community. (Wight and Sparrowe kept the two scores separate, de-emphasizing the political.) In short, a species got a boost for doing well in a popularity contest.

This badly hurt the dusky. When the bird was downgraded to a subspecies, it lost an important ecopolitical constituency—bird watchers, who collect observations of species, rather than subspecies. The dusky plummeted to ninety-seventh place in the general rankings, far below the falcon, which rose to eighth place, and somewhat below the crane, which dropped to seventy-seventh.

The Fish and Wildlife Service paid little attention to the ups and downs of the bird's ranking. Even before Ruhr had written up his ranking system, it had decided to put much of its land-acquisition budget into buying dusky habitat. (We could find no one able to explain this decision.) By 1972 the agency had set up a second wildlife reserve in Brevard County, the St. Johns National Wildlife Refuge, on more than 2,000 acres of former ranchland. The price was $787,000—almost a third of the agency's total land-acquisition expenditures for endangered species in that year. Over the next four years it spent almost a million dollars to add another 2,000 acres.

What happened next has been eloquently described by Mark Jerome Walters, a journalist whose book on the dusky's extinction, A Shadow and a Song, will be published this fall by Chelsea Green. Despite the high cost of acquiring dusky habitat, the service failed to take care of it. Specifically, it didn't plug a major drainage—a task that Walters says would have taken "a couple guys with shovels a couple of days." As a result, the land dried out further. Nearby ranchers continued to burn fields. In December of 1975 a pasture fire went out of control and burned three quarters of the refuge. Only eleven males survived.

The recovery team, of which Herbert Kale, the Brevard County ornithologist, was a member, had already urged the service to buy a second piece of habitat to the south, near a proposed extension of the Beeline Expressway (so called because it cuts straight across central Florida). The agency agreed; it bought 1,500 more acres for the dusky. But again, it did not fill in the ditches—it was still negotiating to buy a big ranch in the middle of the reserve, and could not legally cut off its drainage. By mid-1978 Washington had bought some 6,200 acres at a cost of $2.6 million.

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