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

That summer the agency surveyed the dusky population. It found twenty four males: four on the burned northern part of the refuge, twenty on the new southern part, and none on Merritt Island. On August 31 staffers in the Atlanta office met to discuss the bird's future. Costs, they believed, had to be balanced against benefits. In view of the small number of surviving birds, they asked Washington for permission to "hold the line on future land acquisition." The remaining dusky money, as much as a million dollars, could go to another endangered species, the American crocodile. Schreiner concurred. "We always went for the ones with the best chance of recovery with the least money," he told us recently. "It would have been senseless to commit a large sum of money to that species when other species could have used the money and actually survived." The service stopped negotiating to buy the last ranch, an act that effectively doomed the last wild population of A.m. nigrescens. Amazingly, the agency had a fourth priority system at the time—and in this one the dusky was placed in the fifth highest of forty possible recovery categories. (The St. Johns refuge still exists, its northern half a favorite landing spot for migratory birds, its southern half a testament to the effects of what Kale calls "benign neglect.")

Kale and Will Post, then a biologist at the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, suggested breeding the sparrow in captivity. No female duskies had been seen since 1976, but the bird still had a chance. If dusky males were bred to females of a related subspecies, the Scott's seaside sparrow (A.m. peninsulae), the chicks would be half dusky. Female hybrids could then be "back-crossed" to the dusky males, producing birds that were three-quarters dusky. The sixth generation would be 98.4 percent pure.

After requesting a legal opinion about the propriety of the program, the Fish and Wildlife Service allowed Kale to capture the last five wild birds in 1979 and 1980. The first generation of hybrids was healthy and fertile. Pleased, Kale asked for permission to continue—only to discover that the service had changed its mind. A new legal opinion said that the Endangered Species Act covered pure species only, and that federal money therefore could not be spent on hybrids. Despite an offer to fund the project privately, the service declared A.m. nigrescens off limits.

The stubborn Kale made his pitch again in 1983, this time working with curators at Walt Disney World's Discovery Island. With Mickey Mouse picking up the tab, taxpayers' funds would not be involved. In the meantime, Kale says, the service had been working on a similar back crossing project for a more popular, "macho" bird, the peregrine falcon. Yet another legal opinion was issued by the agency's solicitor, and both the falcon and sparrow projects were allowed to proceed.

Nothing went right. One of the dusky males died of old age. Some of the female hybrids turned out, on closer inspection, to be males. The Scott's sparrows tended to die of unknown causes. One hybrid female was mated to three dusky males, ultimately building six nests and laying eleven eggs. Only one hatched. Many of the other pairs were incompatible. The males, Kale realized, were too old. He was bitter about the two-year delay caused by the service's confusion over its hybrid policy. In a half-hearted fashion the breeding project continued at Disney World. Care of the hybrid birds was imprecise. They were killed by storms; they were killed by rats; some simply disappeared. The pure birds died, one by one, until only Orange Band was left.

Extinction was not the final blow. After Orange Band died, researchers at the University of Georgia analyzed part of the bird's genetic makeup. As best they could determine, Orange Band's DNA was almost identical to the DNA from other seaside sparrow subspecies. ("The last A.m. nigrescens," they wrote, "appears to have been a routine example of the Atlantic coast phylad of seaside sparrow"—a conclusion that Kale hotly disputes.) If the bird was not even a separate subspecies, the service's extraordinary conservation effort had been misapplied.

Meanwhile, the service has continued to fumble over the question of which species to help into the ark. Its current priority system—the sixth, by our count—was adopted in 1983. Three factors are considered: the degree of threat faced by a species, its potential for successful recovery, and its taxonomic status (whether it has close genetic relatives). Recovery priorities rank from a high of 1 to a low of 18; species that are in conflict with land development are supposed to receive speedier treatment. Explicitly left out of consideration is the type of species involved; despite the widespread perception that Congress prefers "glamour species," it has officially instructed the Fish and Wildlife Service to award equal protection to "higher" and "lower" forms of life. The Oregon silverspot butterfly and Fassett's locoweed are thus supposed to be on equal terms with the bald eagle and the northern spotted owl, because they all have the same priority rank.

The ranking system does not set rules for deciding how much to spend on which species. Nonetheless, some correlation should exist between a species's recovery priority and what is spent on it. Unfortunately, none does, raising the specter of more duskies to come. A.m. nigrescens itself rated a 6 in the 1983 system, sharing that rank with thirty-eight other species, including the northeastern beach tiger beetle and the Florida panther. In 1990 the service spent not one penny to bolster the beetle's chances for survival; other federal agencies spent $500. Meanwhile, the Florida panther, a "higher" life form, received $3.8 million. The aberrations are by no means restricted to priority 6. Average expenditures for the eight species with a recovery priority of 1 were $100,000 LESS than those for species with a priority of 6. The government lavished an average of $53,200 on priority-15 species, but starved priority-4 species with an average per-species budget of $5,500. More than half of the $100 million that state and federal governments devoted to endangered species was awarded to eleven species—less than two percent of those on the list. A hundred and fourteen species received no money at all.

On average, the service spent more on subspecies than on full species, more on species with a low recovery potential than on those with a high recovery potential, and, despite congressional instructions to the contrary, fourteen times as much on "charismatic megafauna" as on other types of species. Perhaps most troubling, average federal and state disbursements are actually lower for endangered species than for threatened species. Two of the three most expensive species—the northern spotted owl ($9.7 million, the highest single expenditure) and the grizzly bear ($5.9 million)—are threatened, not endangered. (The third species, a bird called the least Bell's vireo, is endangered; it received $9.2 million.)

Kale was still angry at the Fish and Wildlife Service when we spoke to him last fall. (He seemed as irate as Richard Schroeder.) The service, Kale said, had paid lots of money for habitat that it had not managed; it had then spent still more, only to decide that a final, key parcel of land was not worth the trouble. Even when somebody else was willing to pay, it had refused for several years to allow a last-ditch captive-breeding effort. The whole business, he thought, was senseless and sad. The service had made decisions, but in the most haphazard way, and everyone was the worse for it. He could remember going into the marshes in the 1950s and seeing duskies lined up singing in the grass by the road.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Are Americans So Bad at Saving Money?

The US is particularly miserable at putting aside money for the future. Should we blame our paychecks or our psychology?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In