Stopgap Measures

If our goal is to preserve as many kinds of plants and animals as possible, it makes little sense to spend limited funds on heroic steps to rescue a handful of near-extinct species. A more effective strategy would focus on protecting ecosystems that support maximum biological diversity


TO SAY THAT THE ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT is not working is to sound ungrateful for what it has accomplished. Inasmuch as tens, if not hundreds, of organisms that would undoubtedly be extinct by now—including the Attwater’s prairie chicken, the Florida panther, the black-footed ferret, the Kirtland’s warbler, and the Puerto Rican parrot—are instead hanging on by a thread, the act has been a success.

The continued existence, however precarious, of these species is deeply satisfying to many people. The creatures are beautiful (the whooping crane); they stand for ideals that are important to us culturally (the bald eagle); they exhibit incredible behavior (the Attwater’s prairie chicken); they are stunning emblems of the closest we can come to pristine wilderness {the grizzle bear). Our knowledge of their presence in the wild helps assuage our guilt about what we’ve done to them in particular and to the natural world in general, which might imply that the Endangered Species Act is ultimately designed to treat our own brand of sickness and not theirs. Regardless of what these animals do to make us feel better, they are the walking wounded of the world, and it costs millions of dollars to keep them out there.

That it saves organisms from extinction is faint praise tor a law with the far loftier aspiration of “better safeguarding, for the benefit of all citizens, the Nation’s heritage in fish, wildlife, and plants.” It is the stated purpose of the law not just to keep species from going extinct but to return them to viability. In this regard it is failing.

The Endangered Species Act takes under its wing an array of taxa—from full species (whooping crane) to subspecies (Attwater’s prairie chicken) to discrete populations of species (the Mojave population of the desert tortoise). Faxon (plural taxa”) refers to any of the groupings into which taxonomists classify organisms. As of last November the federal government listed 1,196 taxa around the world—more than half of them occurring in the United States and its territories—as either endangered or threatened, one of which dubious distinctions is necessary for care under the act. Another 3,500 or so are waiting for review. Among this second group—known as candidate species or Category 1 and Category 2 species—are many plants and animals acknowledged by scientists to be in tar worse danger than species that have already qualified. They languish in bureaucratic limbo because of a perennial problem of the act: it never has enough funding. A number of candidate species have gone extinct before they could be considered for listing.

The process for listing threatened and endangered species is complicated, but if there is an overriding criterion for listing, it is that the species is demonstrably imperiled. John Fay, a botanist with the Division of Endangered Species of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, explains the implicit ranking process: “We try to set our priorities so that those species that face the greatest threat are the ones we address first. The alternative—intervening with things that are in better shape—would mean losing a substantial number of species in immediate danger. And within the terms of the Endangered Species Act that’s unacceptable,”

This is what critics point to as a major failing of the act. It intervenes in a way that no intelligent nurse, paramedic, or doctor would under analogous circumstances. It has thrown out the window any concept of triage. It does not sort and care for species in such a way as to maximize the number of surviving species. On the contrary, it attempts to save the hardest cases, the equivalent of the terminally ill and the brain-dead. It pays less attention to species that would be easier and cheaper to save—species that require treatment akin to minor surgery, a splint, or a Band-Aid. The act has no concept of preventive medicine, of keeping healthy species from peril. Consequently, many animals and plants that were common twenty years ago—were even considered in some realms to be pests—are now entitled to care under the Endangered Species Act.

One reason the act eschews triage is that its enforcers, not to mention many endangered-species watchdogs, do not want—and do not want to allow anyone else—to “play God.” There is no doubt that such a role confers awesome responsibilities. The triage of species and the triage of individuals of one species (as it is practiced in emergency rooms and on battlefields) differ by several orders of magnitude. Few people would want the ethical burden of deciding the fate of a whole species—of saying, for instance, that the blunt-nosed leopard lizard can go but the humpback whale stays. John Fay says, “All we can do is try to preserve our options. My absolutely favorite quote is from Aldo Leopold: ‘To save every cog in the wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.'

That’s what we’re trying to do. We don’t know which ones are important. We don’t know which ones are going to disappear.”

Moral neutrality is noble, but it creates problems in the categories of money (there has never been enough allocated to save every cog; there is no promise of more in the future) and biology (the cogs we are saving are so crippled, so compromised, that they can barely perform their assigned functions in their respective niches). To refuse to play God is to play the devil by default.

It’s also true that saving species that don’t need much fixing is boring. We thrive on crisis management, and we love things that are rare much more than things that are common. The people in the public and private sectors who work on policy that actually attempts to protect species before they become endangered—for instance, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Migratory Bird Management, the Nature Conservancy, and the International Council for Bird Preservation—receive precious little attention from the media for their work, because what they do is tedious and unglamorous: it does not play well in measured media doses the way a hand puppet feeding a nestling condor does.

Uncertain Return on Investment

IN 1988 CONGRESS BEGAN TO REQUIRE THAT THE FISH and Wildlife Service submit annual reports on federal expenditures for the U.S. roster of endangered and threatened species. (The federal government spends little money on foreign species.) This is not an easy task—at least thirteen federal agencies make regular outlays of money for endangered species. Not are the reports ever likely to be more than a best guess of expenditures, since endangered-species activities often merge with other operations. For example, prescribed burning—setting fires to remove the brushy vegetation once held at bay by natural fires—is a management tool at Francis Marion National Forest, in coastal South Carolina, which aids not only endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers but also game species like turkey and quail.

While there is much to be said for making the protectors of endangered species accountable for how they spend our money, the expense reports (two have been prepared so far, for 1989 and 1990) are sadly divisive documents that reinforce the individual-species thrust of the Endangered Species Act. They provide ammunition not only for those who are alarmed by how much we’re spending on, say, the Higgins’ eye pearly mussel ($437,700 in 1989; $367,000 in 1990) but also for those who are upset at what we’re not spending on, say, the desert tortoise, a species that because of a strange tipperrespiratory disease is dropping dead at an alarming pace in the Mojave Desert. The tortoise got almost $500,000 in 1989. Its advocates saw that boosted to more than $4 million in 1990.

By focusing on individual species, the expenditure reports perpetuate a chronic lack of attention to the big picture. Environmentalists are defending expenditures tor the plants and animals to which they have, for whatever reason, chosen allegiance when instead they should be addressing a whole different set of questions and concerns. Why does the list of endangered and threatened species keep getting longer? Why have only a few species ever been taken off the list? Where on earth will the money come from to care for every new addition to the lengthening list?

The biggest question the expenditure reports should provoke is this: Why is half of all the money earmarked for endangered and threatened species being spent on only twelve of them? In 1990, of $102 million apportioned among 591 taxa, a total of $55 million went to twelve. They are, in descending order of expenditures, the northern spotted owl, the least Bell’s vireo, the grizzly bear, the red-cockaded woodpecker, the Florida panther, the desert tortoise, the bald eagle, the ocelot, the jaguarundi, the peregrine falcon, the California least tern, and the Chinook salmon. The apportionment does not become much more equal after this first dozen. I he next dozen species—which include the gray wolf, the southern sea otter, and the Puerto Rican parrot—received the next $19 million. In other words, the remaining quarter of funding—$28 million—was shared among about 570 other organisms.

The fortunate two dozen or so creatures that command three quarters of the money are among the most beautiful on earth. They have captured the hearts of a wide assortment of people. These people would better serve the objects of their affections if they cared for whole ecosystems—the degradation of which is largely responsible for our degraded wildlife—with the same fervor.

Intensive care for animals and plants is costly. It is not cheap to hire airplanes and helicopters for the surveillance of populations (as was done before the last California condors were taken from the wild), set up captivebreeding facilities (for the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, the whooping crane, and the black-footed ferret), translocate animals, either in order to get them away from the threat of people or in order to invigorate isolated gene pools (the grizzly bear, the red-cockaded woodpecker), release individuals back into the wild (successfully accomplished with the peregrine falcon), attempt to establish breeding populations (tried and failed with the whooping crane), or keep parasitic cowbirds out of the nests of endangered birds (being done year in and year out for the Kirtland’s warbler, the golden-cheeked warbler, and the black-capped vireo). When we focus treatment on the most afflicted, we can expect to pay.

It is true that the Endangered Species Act inherited some desperate cases when it went into effect. The whooping crane, the California condor, and the Kirtland’s warbler are examples of species that were rare to begin with and suffered from the presence of people within their ranges. Thirty years before the Endangered Species Act, biologists had begun the arduous and expensive endeavor of bringing the whooping crane back, from a single Hock of fourteen individuals in the wild. After fifty years of intensive management, the wild flock of whooping cranes numbers about 140 birds. This population— like all small populations—is intensely vulnerable: last winter nine birds, representing six percent of the flock, were lost.

It is also true that many endangered and threatened species need only moderate sums of money to survive. For instance, certain narrowly endemic plants—plants that have evolved in rare microhabitats, such as the bunched cory cactus and the McKittrick pennyroyal—require little more than the purchase of the land on which they grow, and small outlays for monitoring and law enforcement (cacti, for example, are particularly susceptible to rapacious collectors).

But for every one of these bargain species there is a very expensive one waiting for a constituency to care enough, waiting to get a little more endangered, or waiting tor its recovery plan to be approved. To name just a few, they include the black-capped vireo, the goldencheeked warbler, several of the Columbia River salmon stocks, the humpback whale, the San Marcos gambusia, Texas wild rice, and the thirty-odd species of freshwater mussels now menaced by the accidental introduction of the alien zebra mussel.

Last-Ditch Spending

THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM IS THAT MONEY will save these mortally damaged species. And more money is on the way. Since the Reagan years, when funding for and morale within the Division of Endangered Species fell to all-time lows, its fortunes have enjoyed a reversal. President George Bush’s appointment of John Turner as the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has restored a sense of mission and esprit de corps to the division, and Bush’s 1992 budget included a record request of almost $60 million for the endangered-species program. Although these developments are salutary, they are the sort of modest encouragement that rewards the status quo and inhibits critical assessment of a noble piece of legislation that is fraught with problems.

All bird watchers have had the gut-wrenching experience of returning to a woods, marsh, or stream that has transmogrified into a condominium project or a cornfield or a parking lot. Their local, subjective sense of loss can be objectified and magnified across the continent. In 1987 the Office of Technology Assessment published a document called “Technologies to Maintain Biological Diversity.” It is full of depressing information, including this rueful sentence: “Natural ecosystem diversity has declined in the United States historically, and no evidence suggests that this long-term trend has been arrested.” The authors continue, “Twenty-three ecosystem types that once covered about half the conterminous United States now cover only about 7 percent.”

The recent book Where Have All the Birds Gone?, by the biologist John Terborgh, is a long lament over the loss of habitat in North America: only a fraction of a percent remains of the virgin forests that once covered the continent east of the Rockies; more than 90 percent of the woodlands along rivers and streams in the arid West have been eliminated, for the sake of flood control or irrigation; 99 percent of Iowa’s wetlands, 90 percent of Nebraska’s and Missouri’s, 89 percent of Illinois’s, and 80 percent of Minnesota’s have been drained and converted to cropland.

In order to save the most-endangered species, the act diverts attention and money from the much more crucial goal of preserving overall biological diversity—that is, preserving the maximum number of healthy species in ecosystems that require a minimum of maintenance. The way to save species is to save the places where they live. By extension, the way to save the greatest number of species is to save the places that house the richest biological inventory. One example is the 17,800-acre Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, where, according to J. Michael Scott, a research biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and his colleagues, there are 257 vertebrate species, 170 of which have resident populations. “The populations of many of these species number in the tens of thousands,” Scott et al. write. “The annual cost of managing this system, estimated at one million dollars, is less than the annual expenditures on the recovery effort for the critically endangered California condor.” The comparatively low cost of maintenance leads Scott and his colleagues to conclude, “Prevention is cheaper than treatment.”

The Endangered Species Act has institutionalized the bizarre notion that the primary legal justification for the preservation of an ecosystem is a species teetering on the brink of extinction. That it is one of the most magnificent landscapes in North America is somehow no longer reason enough to preserve the last remnants of the Pacific old-growth forest. Instead, the only legal mechanism available is to require the preservation of some minimum configuration of that forest in hopes of keeping the northern spotted owl—one species among thousands that dwell there—from going extinct. At the same time, the boreal forests of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and upper Michigan, the marshes and wetlands rimming our coasts, the prairie potholes of the Midwest, the riparian woodlands along streams in the West, and other ecosystems will continue to shrink until they yield evidence of the endangered species that will warrant their preservation.

These ecosystems are well on their way to providing the requisite crippled species. Of particular concern to biologists is the roster of declining birds, any one of which may soon vie with the northern spotted owl for attention in the media. They are the common loon, the wood thrush, the Swainson’s warbler, and the marbled murrelet, which rely on various forest ecosystems; the reddish egret, a coastal species; the surfbird, the bristlethighed curlew, and the buff-breasted sandpiper, highly migratory shorebirds; and the vermilion flycatcher, the loggerhead shrike, and the grasshopper sparrow, denizens of various grassland, prairie, and plains ecosystems.

These problems point to an obvious conclusion: the Endangered Species Act is treating the symptom and not the disease. The increasing numbers of plants and animals that are becoming biological wards of the government are a manifestation of what can only be described as an ecosystems crisis. Yet the servants of the Endangered Species Act, charged explicitly with habitat conservation, have never excelled at the real-estate business. They have come to rely on heroic measures for saving one species at a time in large part because they have failed at the alternative of saving habitat. The act has continually gone against the grain of the American desire to exploit the natural resources of this continent, its arterial system of fresh water, and its surrounding seas without considering the consequences.

Defenders of the act, many of whom know exactly what’s wrong with it and willingly discuss its flaws in private, worry that public criticism will play into the hands of the pro-development groups who perennially try to weaken it. Many environmentalists are girding for just such an assault this spring, when the act comes up in Congress for reauthorization. They should not fear criticism from within their own ranks, however. When adversaries of the act assail its shortcomings—when, for example, they complain that we are spending too much money on endangered species—environmentalists have an obvious counteroffensive: The reason the act has engendered a costly and unwieldy bureaucracy for the perpetual care of compromised organisms is that pro-development groups have been so successful at evading the central principle of the act—the preservation of ecosystems. The very people who complain about the act are the ones who have made it malfunction.

Gap Analysis

OVER THE PAST DECADE STEADILY INCREASNIG numbers of zoologists, botanists, geneticists, environmental-policy makers, land managers, geographers, and developers have been making the case that it is time to focus on the rational, systematic, continent-wide preservation of those ecosystems that support maximum biological diversity. A leader in this cause has been J. Michael Scott, who was the project leader for the California-condor recovery program from 1984 to 1986, and before that spent ten years in Hawaii, which harbors the greatest concentration of endangered birds in the world. Hawaii also holds an appalling number of endangered plants, of which the Cooke’s kokio, a tree, is considered the most endangered species in the world. Only half of one Cooke’s kokio exists; it is grafted onto a related species in a botanical garden in Hawaii.

On behalf of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Scott and a team of twenty-six ornithologists, botanists, and statisticians were assigned the task of conducting an inventory of the forest birds of the Hawaiian Islands; they produced one of the classic documents in field ornithology. Forest Bird Communities of the Hawaiian Islands. During years of camping in the rain and slogging in the mud (Hawaii harbors the wettest places on earth) and worrying about the people on his team (“I count as our biggest achievement outside the scientific realm that we got through six years of that kind of survey in remote country and we didn’t lose a single person”), Scott began to get his first inklings of what was wrong with the management of endangered species. He began to see the gaps.

For their study Scott and his team made Mylar maps of the vegetation of each island, of the range of each species of bird, and of the existing federal, state, and private land holdings that preserved the presumed habitats of these species. When the maps were laid on top of one another, the lack of overlap was glaringly apparent: the areas of greatest avian diversity were outside the protection of preserves.

In this simple fashion Scott performed one of the first exercises in what has come to be called “gap analysis” (F. William Burley, an Oregon biologist and rancher, is usually credited with coining the term). Gap analysis looks for unprotected landscapes that are rich in species. Far faster than a man stacking maps, and with the ability to manipulate much more information, computers store, manage, retrieve, and analyze vast amounts of information from satellite imagery and data bases that show for a particular landscape the different species on it, their distribution, and various habitat factors (vegetation, soil type, geologic elements) and cultural features (zoning, roadways, land ownership, dominant land use). Much of the species information being used comes from information gathered by the Nature Conservancy, a private land-preservation organization that has been a leader in the assessment of ecosystems in North America.

The development of gap analysis as a technique for locating areas of rich biological diversity has coincided with increased concern about rapidly dwindling tropical ecosystems. Biologists and policy-makers working in the tropics have been quick to use gap-analysis approaches to try to find and save the richest examples of those ecosystems. Scott came up against endangered-species bias when he began looking for funding to start doing somegap analysis of North American ecosystems. I got no buyers for two years,” he says. He kept hearing,

“‘Come back in twentyfive years and we’ll talk to you. Right now we’re up to our eyeballs in endangered species.’ But look, I said, this is the way to get around it.” Scott and his colleagues, funded by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, have completed a gap analysis for Idaho. “The same sorts of patterns we were finding in Hawaii hold true for Idaho,” Scott says. “Even with a state that has more than fifty percent federal land ownership, we re still finding large numbers of natural vegetation types that are completely outside natural preserve areas. Gap analysis is also in progress or about to begin for seventeen other states.

Analyzing the gaps in protected biological diversity across North America will be merely a stimulating computer game for a handful of biologists and geographers unless the new method is applied to rethinking and rearranging land use on the continent. “What I envision, Scott says, “is making this information available to people who are in a position to make management decisions— federal landowners, for instance, who can see how their property plays a role in the protection of biological diversity, where a shift in land management could afford more protection to an area of high species richness or to a vegetation type that is unprotected in other areas. That requires no expenditures of dollars. I hat’s simply a shift in management.

Scott believes that gap analysis can steer bureaucracies toward buying unprotected areas that are rich in species—and away from ecosystems that, however beautiful to behold, are already adequately protected. Gap analysis promotes the greatest biodiversity at the least cost to the taxpayer. By also identifying areas of potential conflict (areas where oil exploration is occurring, for example), gap analysis allows buyers to find the species-rich land least encumbered by controversy. Gap analysis locates lands owned by willing sellers, not by parties who are intractable and litigious—and this is its strongest virtue.

Perhaps Michael Scott has impossibly lofty goals for gap analysis; perhaps he is simply tired of the good fight; perhaps the evolved policies of the Endangered Species

Act are the best we can hope for in an imperfect world. But when I think of biologists frantically building nest holes for red-cockaded woodpeckers, or keeping vigil under the last few Puerto Rican parrot nests in the wild, or watching black-footed ferrets die of canine distemper, or abandoning their efforts to establish another flock of whooping cranes at Grays Lake, Idaho, or pitching cowbirds out of the nests of Kirtlands warblers year in and year out, I no longer call to mind the words of Aldo Leopold or Henry David Thoreau or John Muir or any of the Native American chiefs who spoke so eloquently long ago about the sacredness of the earth and mankind’s debt to the beasts. Instead. I think of Hampton Carson, a geneticist and an authority on endangered Hawaiian flora and fauna, who once wrote, “Nature is a better stockkeeper than we are.”