Who Gets Credit for `Recovering' Species?

DESPERATE for an endangered species ``success'' story, the federal government recently removed the gray whale from the list of endangered and threatened species because it has ``recovered.''

``This is a great success story, and we feel that the protective measures that have been taken to preserve this species have succeeded, and now it no longer requires protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA),'' said Doug Hall of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency with primary jurisdiction over the gray whale.

``Two decades ago, the ... gray whale ... seemed destined for extinction,'' added a Fish and Wildlife Service press release.

Yet the gray whale may never have needed the ESA's protection. It was not headed for extinction 20 years ago. Gray whale populations have been steadily increasing for decades, long before the ESA was passed in 1973.

Around the turn of the century, California gray whale numbers declined to between 2,000 and 5,000 due to commercial whaling. Because the whales had become so scarce, whalers turned to other, more plentiful whale species. By 1930, the gray whale population had increased.

Commercial whaling again reduced the population, so in 1946 the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling prohibited the commercial hunting of gray whales. The population has steadily increased since the moratorium.

``The removal of exploitation of these great whales has been the thing that has allowed the whales to recover,'' states Dr. Bill Fox, former director of the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Mexican government has also played a crucial role by protecting the lagoons in Baja California where whales calve and breed.

In 1991, when the gray whale was first proposed for delisting, NOAA estimated that there were about 21,000 gray whales, compared with estimates of 15,000 to 20,000 in the mid-1800s, before major commercial exploitation took place.

The government is not the only party falsely claiming that the ESA has been the primary cause of the gray whale's improvement. ``We think delisting of the California gray whale is yet another success story of the Endangered Species Act,'' echoed Suzanne Jones of the National Wildlife Federation. NWF, however, is equally wrong.

Economist George Gilder calls this type of statement the ``cock-a-doodle-doo'' method of claiming success. This occurs when one takes credit for a preexisting trend. As the rooster crows when the sun comes up, so have the government and environmental groups crowed over the success of the gray whale's ``recovery.''

Some in the environmental community recognize that the ESA should not be credited with the gray whale's rebound. Michael Bean of the Environmental Defense Fund says, ``The ESA was probably not the primary factor leading to the recovery of the gray whale.'' This also could be said of the other six species that have been declared ``recovered'' under the ESA:

* Palau fantail flycatcher, Palau owl, and Palau dove. These three species of birds live in the Trust Territory of Palau, islands in the South Pacific. Portions of these islands were decimated by some of the heaviest fighting of World War II. Yet the birds were listed as endangered in 1970 on the basis of surveys conducted just after the war. As the islands revegetated over the next 40 years, the birds slowly returned.

* Eastern brown pelican. ``Until 1972, when the federal government banned the use of the pesticide DDT, biologists feared these and other birds might go the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon,'' writes the Endangered Species Coalition. However, DDT was banned in 1972, one year prior to the passage of the ESA. Therefore there is no relation between the banning of DDT and the ESA.

* American alligator. In 1973 there were approximately 734,000 alligators, which were far from being endangered. Throughout their entire range of 10 states (except Florida, for which no data were available), alligator populations were increasing in 168 counties, stable in 152 counties, and decreasing in only 25 counties.

* Rydberg milk-vetch. This plant from Utah staged a dramatic ``recovery'' when its population increased from two populations of approximately 2,500 plants in 1978 to a total of 13 populations of over 300,000 plants in 1989. The increase had less to do with the ESA than it did with experts simply going out and looking for more plants.

So the next time the federal government or some environmentalist starts describing how the ESA has been responsible for ``recovering'' endangered species, perhaps you can ruffle their feathers by telling them it simply isn't so. Ask how many species have actually been recovered due to the Endangered Species Act. The answer is simple: Zero. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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