The Audubon Society assesses troubled state of US wildlife. Cites extinction, loss of wetlands as big problems

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

America's wildlife is facing serious challenges. Several animal species are in danger of extinction, and many more are in great danger, according to a report released today by the Audubon Society. The report is fast becoming one of the most important annual assessments of the troubled state of wildlife and the federal government's conservation record.

Among the report's findings:

American fisheries are overexploited, migratory bird species and other animals are closer to extinction, and some of our most precious forests and wetlands are in danger.

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Excessive roadbuilding, overgrazing, oil and gas leasing, below-cost timber sales, and declining budgets are among some of the report's concerns.

``It outlines how federal conservation systems work -- and where at times they don't,'' Interior Secretary Donald Hodel writes in the report's foreward.

The polar bear, wolf, sage grouse, and Kemp's Ridley sea turtle are in severe danger of extinction. Species in serious trouble include the loon, woodland caribou, loggerhead shrike, black duck, spotted owl, Atlantic and Chinook salmon, and the hooded warbler.

Conservation experts explain that the decline or extinction of individual species conveys a broader concern for the loss of biological diversity. Such diversity is critical for the future of all animals and mankind.

For example, the hooded warbler is known as an ``indicator species'' because its decline indicates problems for a host of other species. Tropical forests in Mexico and Central America, where the hooded warblers and many other bird species (especially songbirds) spend their winters, are being cleared at a voracious rate.

``These migratory species maintain a territory in tropical forests during the winter,'' points out Dr. Tanner Girard, a professor of ornithology at Principia College and president of the Illinois Audubon Society. ``As you cut down the forests, you either destroy the territory or fragment it into sections too small to sustain the species.''

The report maintains that the threats to migratory birds may lead to the regional -- perhaps total -- extinction of some species.

``The continuing loss of these forests spells the disappearance of the planet's biological diversity. Though today's tropical moist forests cover only 7 percent of the Earth's land area, they are believed to be home to half of its species. Only 1.7 million of the planet's 5-to-10 million species have yet been identified. At current rates of tropical forest loss a million species, 10 percent to 20 percent of the Earth's total, could become extinct by the year 2000. Most will disappear without ever having been discovered,'' according to World Resources 1986, an annual report from the World Resources Institute and the International Institute for Environment and Development.

``The long-term prognosis for forest migratory species is poor. . . . Few if any can survive in the pastures, agricultural fields, or urban sprawl now replacing forests,'' say experts in the 1,065-page document. American fisheries are also highlighted as sharing symptoms of poor resource management.

``There are persistent difficulties in our ability to properly manage fishing activities,'' said Michael Weber, author of the report's fishery chapter. ``We keep finding ourselves in the position of taking emergency measures because we were unwilling to make the tough decisions early enough to make a difference.''

Overfishing of some species like cod, striped bass, haddock, and lobster not only affect recent catches, but also potentially disrupt the balance of species within the ecosystem. This may result in reduced long-term yields for many species.

Georges Bank, one of the world's richest fishing grounds, suffers from declining haddock populations and a herring population deemed commercially extinct. Atlantic salmon are now so depleted that recorded catches are rare in the US. In the Gulf of Mexico, the stock of King mackerel appears near collapse and billfishes and swordfish are near or past their maximum yield, according to the report.

Although the document describes many problems associated with federal conservation efforts, the Audubon Society does not view the work as an advocacy document.

``Federal activities are a bureaucratic maze,'' explains Audubon society president Peter A. A. Berle. ``For the first time we have placed all the pieces of the puzzle on the table and explained how they relate.''

Even Interior Secretary Donald Hodel agrees, describing federal activities as ``the other wilderness,'' a ``vast and daunting tangle of rules and regulatory undergrowth'' that ``frequently presents a bewildering and seemingly impenetrable barrier.''

The secretary praises the report for making ``the institutionalized conservation mechanisms of government more available to the general citizenry.''

Mr. Berle says that the expertise to protect and restore a species is available. ``There are some success stories with species like the Whooping Crane, Osprey, and the Peregrine Falcon,'' he said. ``With the proper resources we can turn these problems around.''

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