In the three decades since it was signed into law, the Endangered Species Act has had some remarkable successes: Wolves have made a comeback in the Northern Rockies; bald eagles have rebounded. But the ESA is an imperfect tool.
The endangered species list is often likened to the
hospital emergency room, and the comparison is an apt one. By the
time a plant or animal lands on the list, it is far down the road
to destruction. The chance for preventive medicine has
As a result, we have stories like that of the
endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow, which, barring a miracle
— or a little sacrifice from the farmers and city dwellers
who live along the Rio Grande in New Mexico — will soon
survive only in what amounts to a giant fish tank. Attempts by
environmentalists to keep water in the minnow’s native
habitat — the river — have been shot down by big
agriculture and growth-hungry politicians. The city of San Diego
faced its own conundrum in the 1990s.
were using the Endangered Species Act to beat back a subdivision
here, a strip mall there, while the rest of the landscape
unraveled. Developers were losing money as projects were delayed,
while native wildlife steadily lost ground.
So, with a
little prodding from the Clinton administration, San Diego did
something new. It tried to set aside large chunks of wildlife
habitat that would, in theory, protect a whole suite of plants and
animals. Land outside of these habitat preserves could be
developed, giving builders some financial certainty.
Multiple Species Conservation Program was a huge undertaking, and
the result was groundbreaking. But the program came at least a
decade late. And as veteran Arizona reporter Tony Davis writes in
this issue, doubts abound over whether it is ambitious enough to
save San Diego’s imperiled wildlife.
early to know whether San Diego’s conservation program will
succeed; the fires now scorching Southern California cast this in
some doubt. Meanwhile, the program is being imitated by habitat
conservation plans all over the country.
experiment offers one lesson, it is this: Start early, and err on
the side of the endangered species, because the forces of
development will whittle away at habitat wherever they
Perhaps some day we’ll convince Congress to
pass an Endangered Ecosystem Act. But for now, we’re stuck
with an imperfect tool. Habitat conservation plans ensure that
developers can build. We need to be sure that endangered species
get assurances that are just as strong.