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Natural Selections?


May 1996

On May 20 Congress ended a thirteen-month-long moratorium on federal funding for the national endangered-species program by granting protection under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 to the California red-legged frog (believed to have been the "celebrated jumping frog" referred to in Mark Twain's frog-racing tale). Now that the ban on species-protection spending has been rescinded, federal officials face the daunting task of determining which species to aid.

A recent controversy in Massachusetts has highlighted some of the complexities. On Saturday, May 18, the Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife Service began promoting the welfare of one bird species by systematically poisoning another. A burgeoning sea-gull population, officials explained, was threatening the endangered piping plover on Monomoy Island, off the coast of Cape Cod. To prevent the gulls from completely appropriating the plovers' habitat the Fish and Wildlife Service decided to reduce the sea gull population by planting poisoned bread cubes in the birds' nests.

Animal-rights groups have protested that the poisoning is not only cruel but unnecessary since the Massachusetts sea gull population is declining anyway (owing to the closure of several landfills that had served as important food sources) and because the piping plovers seem to be thriving. Some have accused the Fish and Wildlife Service of setting aside room on the island for plovers that could be displaced if restrictions against off-road vehicles on Cape Cod beaches are lifted. In a Boston Globe interview, John Stevens, an attorney for the animal-rights groups, asked, "Is the Fish and Wildlife Service saying that gulls have to die so that the surfers can drive their beach buggies on Nauset Beach?"

This controversy raises difficult questions about how much and what kind of responsibility human beings can or should take in determining whether or not other species survive. When, if ever, should human endeavors take priority over the survival of a species? Who should decide which species to protect and at what costs to other species? Is it presumptuous for human beings to become arbiters of other creatures' fates?

In The Butterfly Problem (January, 1992) Atlantic Monthly contributors Charles C. Mann and Mark L. Plummer focused on the problems inherent in human attempts at stewardship of global biodiversity. They argued that the Endangered Species Act, though intended to protect threatened or dwindling species, in fact makes the preservation of any given species difficult. The authors point out that the Act's blindly optimistic presumption that all species can and should be saved impedes the salvation of a carefully chosen few:

Few species are unsavable today; concerted human effort can save most of them. But we are unlikely to have the means to save them all. . . . Like cost-conscious Noahs, Americans will pick which creatures to bring with them and which to leave behind.

Mann and Plummer address some of the difficult dilemmas that federal officials must face in the decision-making process: should "glamour species," take precedence over "creepy-crawlies?" And what about the fact that "wiping out even the humblest mold might deprive humanity of the genes for a future penicillin"?

Such choices, the authors argue, are "inescapable--but the Endangered Species Act, in its insistence that we save every species, implicitly rejects this responsibility. As a result, the government is left with little guidance. It moves almost at random, with dismaying consequences."

The endangered species protection issue, impinging as it does on such highly politicized concerns as animal rights, the environment, and federal fiscal responsibility, will surely continue to provoke controversy and debate in this election year.


Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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