Extinctions 'Reduced to a Trickle'

Recovery process is tedious and costly, but 41 percent of at-risk species are now at least stable.

THE science of preserving endangered species from extinction and then restoring them to a healthy population is complex and costly ... and increasingly political.It involves sorting out sub-species and populations of threatened plants and animals, establishing their true numbers and the threat to their existence, protecting and sometimes restoring habitat to prevent further decline, weighing the social and economic impact of such actions, and then waiting years (sometimes decades) to determine results. The painstaking effort to restore species is seen in the case of the red wolf. Listed as endangered in 1967 (under a predecessor law to the Endangered Species Act of 1973), the wolf became extinct in the wild about 10 years ago when the last few were captured. Since then, red wolves bred in captivity have been gradually re-introduced to remote areas of Mississippi, Florida, the Carolinas, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. They wear radio collars and are tracked through their breeding cycle; then some are recaptured. Their numbers are now back up to about 160, and the recovery goal is to have a captive population of about 330 animals and a wild population of about 220. Then the wolf will be maintained "in perpetuity through cryogenic preservation of sperm and embryo banking," according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service's most recent report to Congress on recovery programs. Part of the problem with restoring and maintaining this species of wolf is that red wolf look-alikes can actually be a cross between a gray wolf and a coyote - a hybrid that doesn't qualify for official protection. Government agencies spend about $600,000 a year on the red wolf, but this is far from the most expensive effort. In the last fiscal year, state and federal recovery efforts for 24 species cost more than a million dollars each - some much more. (Northern spotted owl, $9.7 million; least Bell's vireo, $9.2 million; grizzly bear, $5.9 million; red-cockaded woodpecker, $5.2 million; Florida panther, $4.1 million.) Some critics question the cost, but Environmental Defense Fund specialist Michael Bean points out that the Fish and Wildlife Service's total annual budget for administering the Endangered Species Act ($38.7 million) "is less than the amount budgeted for repairs of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge" spanning the Potomac River. When all agency costs (including land acquisition) are added, he says, the total over the 17-year life of the act still has been less than the Sandia National Laboratory will spend on nuclear-weapons research just this year. The cost and complexity increases when whole ecosystems are designated for protection. Such is the case in the Ash Meadows wetland, about 90 miles from Las Vegas in the Mojave Desert. Due to large-scale farming and cattle ranching, the natural aquatic habitat was so damaged that 12 plant and animal species were listed as threatened or endangered and another 20 became candidates for listing. Since all but four of these species are found nowhere else, the Fish and Wildlife Service describes this ecosystem as having "the highest known concentration of endemic taxa [species confined to a single area] in the continental United States." When a 1976 US Supreme Court decision limited water pumping in the basin, the land was bought by a real estate developer who planned to build a community of 50,000 people. Following the listing of two species of fish as endangered, the land was purchased by the Nature Conservancy, which then sold it to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1984. Since then, a recovery plan has been developed that includes habitat restoration for aquatic wildlife as well as the trapping and chemical treatment of exotic species (introduced by agriculture) that have been crowding out the native species. The process undoubtedly will take years. The decline of "indicator species" is often seen as a warning for vast areas needing vast recovery plans with potentially vast political and economic impact. This is the case with the northern spotted owl, a sub-species listed as "threatened" last year. The Fish and Wildlife Service this year designated 8.2 million acres of forest in California, Oregon, and Washington as "critical habitat" for the owl. A 16-member federal owl recovery team has just sent its recommendations to Interior Department headquarters. The plan (which is expected to be released in February) reportedly would reduce logging in the Northwest to half the levels of the 1980s. Even more complicated, and perhaps costlier, is the recent listing of Columbia/Snake River Basin salmon. Increasing water flows around hydropower dams under a recovery plan just announced by the Northwest Power Planning Council could cost from $200 million to $1 billion over the next five years, mostly in increased electricity bills. Whether or not this will be the answer to declining salmon runs remains unclear. Says Angus Duncan, a planning council member: "I don't think we'll know for 20 years whether we succeeded." Another "indicator species" is the delta smelt, which lives in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta of California, where fresh water from the Sierra Nevada mixes with the salty waters of the Pacific Ocean. In September, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the smelt as a threatened species. Water supplies for the state's huge agriculture industry and two-thirds of all residential water users could be affected if a recovery plan is ordered. Because of all this cost and effort, 41 percent of threatened and endangered species in the US now are stable or increasing. Still, this means the rest - the majority - are either declining or their status is unknown. At the current rate of listing and recovery, the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife has estimated that it would take over 60 years just to determine whether all candidate species deserve protection. In looking at the steady decline of Neotropical birds (those that migrate between the US and Latin America), as well as the lengthy effort it will take to turn that decline around, Fish and Wildlife Service director John Turner has complained that "at this rate, the only Baltimore orioles kids will see in the next century will be baseball players." While the recovery rate of endangered and threatened species may be tediously slow, the alternative to species protection under the law could have been worse. "While it is impossible to know what would have happened in the absence of the act, it seems highly likely that at least the 12 listed species from the Ash Meadows area of Nevada, the mission blue butterfly and Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard of California, the cui-ui fish, the Wyoming toad, the Cumberland monkey-faced pearly mussel, Schaus' swallowtail butterfly, the red-cockaded woodpecker, and many of Hawaii's native birds would today all be extinct, or much closer to it, but for the Endangered Sp ecies Act," says Mr. Bean. "The act has not stopped all extinctions in the United States," he says. "But it has almost certainly reduced to a trickle what would otherwise have been a torrent of extinctions."

Next: The political dimension of protecting species.

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