Friday, October 21, 2005

A Sober Look at the Endangered Species Recovery Act of 2005.

I down loaded a pdf copy of the ESRA 2005 and have read through it. It is a difficult read because it is constantly referring to sections and subsections of the 1973 act (ie: “Section 4(c)(1) (16 U.S.C. 1533(c)(1)) is amended in the second sentence by inserting ‘and’ after ‘if any’…”) The following is a long post that discusses some of the issues that I as a wildlife scientist (I have an MS in Zoology and I’m working on a PhD in Fisheries and Wildlife Science) have with the new Endangered Species act being voted on in the Senate in the next few weeks. These provisions of the new act undermine our ability to preserve rare wildlife from exploitation and probable extinction.

1. ‘‘(2)(A) The term ‘best available scientific data’ means scientific data, regardless of source, that are available to the Secretary at the time of a decision or action for which such data are required by this Act and that the Secretary determines are the most accurate, reliable, and relevant for use in that decision or action.”

The problem with this the definition of “best scientific data available” is the insertion of the phrase “regardless of source.” The Bill allows the secretary of the Interior to mandate the definition of best science available but advises the Secretary to follow the guide lines established under the Data Quality Act of 2001. Science is self regulated and data and analyses published in journals undergo extensive review by other independent scientists. Technical Government reports and other unpublished sources of data are not reviewed and therefore not held to the same standards as published material. Unpublished work is potentially subject to personally motivated analysis, unchecked opinions and erroneous interpretations. Granted there is a large amount of scientific research that goes unpublished each year and I think it would be improper to excluded unpublished data but some hierarchy needs to be established. The Endangered Species act should clearly give preference to peer reviewed articles, published books, unpublished graduate thesis and dissertation, Government reports and so on down the line of independent input on the data and analyses, with industry sponsored research at the bottom o that list. We need to do our best to establish and maintain objective and independent input in our wildlife management policies.


I well agree that the critical habitat designation requirements in the 1973 act have led to a great deal of problems. Namely in that numerous law suits have been filed by industry and by environmental groups alike against the USFWS over critical habitat designations. The USFWS is spending the majority of its endangered species budget on designating habitats or fighting law suits rather than actually protecting species. Currently habitat protection is dependant on being officially categorized as “critical” so legally the USFWS has the designate critical habitat before doing anything else. Eliminating Critical habitat from the bill all together does not fix this problem. In fact the ESRA of 2005 appears to try and remove all references to habitat from the 1973 act. We cannot possiblly expect species to recovery with out habitat set aside for them to use. This includes currently used habitat but also potentially useable habitat for the species to expand into as it recovers. Decoupling species recovery from habitat protection pretty much assures that endangered species will not recover. I think that a better system would entail an initial designation of “potential habitat” and then more detail analysis of individual cases where potential habitat will be utilized. Eliminating the critical habitat clause entirely goes too far, however modifying the language of the critical habitat clause has many potential benefits.

3. “The Secretary shall use the authority provided by paragraph (1) to determine any distinct population of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife to be an endangered species or a threatened species only sparingly.”

This statement is potentially very dangerous. Limiting the ability f the USFWS to recognize and protect individual populations will drastically reduce its ability to protect and recover endangered species. First of all each population of a species is genetically distinct and preserving genetic diversity is one of the inherent goals of species conservation. The elimination of one population greatly reduces the genetic health of the over all species. Second distinct populations are essential for long term viability of a species. Individuals produced in one population may disperse to different populations as adults and the exchange of individuals between populations keeps them genetically healthy and helps to maintain the spatial distribution of the species. Let us say that individual population protections are removed, and the USFWS allows the exploitation and eventual elimination of one population because there are plenty of individual in another population in another location. What happens when a giant hurricane hits the East Coast and wipes out the heretofore health, unexploited population? There is no secondary source of individuals to repopulate the East Coast. Reducing the ability of the USFWS to protect distinct populations can potentially lead to putting all of our eggs in one basket. We don’t invest all of our saving in one company, we diversify our portfolios.

4. Incidental Take Permits:
Secretary may not require the holder, without the consent of the holder, to adopt any new minimization, mitigation, or other measure with respect to any species adequately covered by the permit during the term of the permit…

Incidental take is basically defined as the permitted taking of or harm to a listed species through actions that are other lawful. Government agencies or contractors apply for incidental take permits from the Department of the Interior which grants or denies a permit by determining if the take will increase the jeopardy of the listed species. The new act states in several places that the concept and use of “adaptive management” (to alter or revise management plans and actions when new data or information comes to light) is an important part of effectively managing a species. Yet, on page 54 the act prevents the Secretary from revising any plan intended to minimize the impact of incidental take already instated without permission of the permitee. The above statement severely limits the capacity of the USFWS to adapt management strategies to best ensure recovery. This statement puts far too much power into the hands of special interests (ie. natural resource extraction corporations like oil or logging companies).

Another primary problem with this bill is that the burden of proof for protecting a species continues to lie with the Fish and Wildlife Service. The USFWS has to use its limited budget and resources to prove that industry actions will harm a listed species. They have to conduct the wildlife demographic analyses and the economic analyses and prove that the detriment to the species out weighs the economic benefit. Whereas the industry, with all is capital and resources has only to present reasonable doubt. They propose an action that will provide great profits to their company, and then force the USFWS to prove that those profits are not worth it. Why is the burden of proof not with the industry that desires to exploit our natural resources? Why doesn’t the industry have to spend the money and time on research and analysis proving that their actions won’t harm our environment? Those resources and this environment belong to the people of the United States and companies should have to prove to us the people that their actions will harm us and our belongings. Redirecting the burden of proof will free up the USFWS to actually do its job of protecting rare species, to conduct the research necessary to understand the conservation needs of an endangered species, and to actually work towards recovering species and taking them off the list.

These are just 5 of the problems with this bill that I found after spending a few hours on Wednesday morning trying to understand it. I do think that this Bill has some good parts. I like the notion of providing incentives for private land owners to manage their land for endangered species, however that mandate needs to be coupled with increased funding to pay for those incentives. Currently the annual budget for the USFWS is in a downward spiral. Overall I acknowledge that there are several problems with the 1973 ESA, and I think that these problems are issues that congress should address. But you don’t fix things by completely undoing them. You fix them by altering policy and tweaking legislation.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?