Swapping politics for science


By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

It’s not often a government agency asks Congress to limit the amount of money it spends to do its job. But that’s what the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) did last month when it told Congress that it wants a cap put on how much it can shell out to process endangered species petitions.

The agency is evidently overwhelmed by the recent, unprecedented number of petitions for species’ listing—more than 1,230 in the past four years, compared to roughly 20 per year in the dozen years prior. As a result of the massive backlog, it is repeatedly missing critical deadlines, which allows the FWS to be sued for legal fees. A cap on spending, or a limit on the number of petitions it is allowed to consider annually would, presumably, give the Service a leg to stand on in court.


The wolverine is "warranted but precluded" for listing as an endangered species.

WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity, the two groups that have filed 90 percent of those 1,230 requests to gain Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection for beleaguered plants and animals, have been accused of paralyzing the listing process by forcing the FWS to consider new candidates for protection, instead of allowing it to focus on the ones already in the system. (Once the FWS receives a petition, it has 90 days to decide if an endangered listing may be warranted. If the answer is yes, it then has one year to investigate further whether or not a listing is, in fact, warranted.)

True, the FWS has the Sisyphean tasks of both deciding which species warrant protection under the ESA, and of crafting plans for that protection. Yes, its budget is limited; in the 2010 fiscal year, Congress gave the FWS just $10.5 million—fewer than $.04 per American—for listings (a pittance compared to, say, $671 billion in defense spending proposed for 2012).  Also true, the listing process is not cheap: the median cost for preparing and publishing a 90-day finding is $39,276 and, for a 12-month finding, it’s $100,690. Once a species is listed, the price tag gets even steeper.

The criticism against the petitioners is, nevertheless, unwarranted. Consider the state of the world’s biodiversity: a recent issue of Nature warned that the current rate of extinctions worldwide is “far above normal.” A recent report in the journal Science said, “on average, 50 species of mammal, bird and amphibian move closer to extinction each year.” NatureServe, the non-profit organization which maintains what’s recognized as the most complete list of imperiled species in U.S., has said that the “actual number of known species threatened with extinction is at least ten times greater than the number protected under the ESA.”

Now is not the time to scheme the best way to put off endangered species listings with caps and limits. It is a key moment to strategize how to earn protection for as many species as possible, as efficiently as possible.

Instead, the endangered species game is one of hurry-up-and-wait. Once the FWS has seen the science on a species, and green lights it for protection, most then enter a purgatory called “warranted but precluded,” which means there are “higher priority” species in line ahead of them competing for those extremely limited protection funds. Species can linger in limbo for a decade or more, and dozens have gone extinct while waiting.

Two species that have languished on that list of 261 “candidate species” deserve a closer look. The lesser prairie chicken and the dunes sagebrush lizard, whose habitat across the Southwest has been fragmented by overgrazing and energy development, were the subject of a letter to Congress in April. That letter was sent by several U.S. representatives from New Mexico and Texas who feel the chicken and the lizard are standing in the way of business in their backyards.

Despite the fact the FWS has already invested a lot of time (90 days plus 12 months for each species) and money (roughly $280,000 for both) to determine that the duo are scientifically-proven to be hovering on the brink of extermination, the congressmen want a “time out” in the “precipitous march” of the chicken and the lizard towards endangered species listing. In the case of these two desert-dwellers, being in abeyance for over a decade has made them popular, political targets. Their supposed protection is a farce.

As the chicken and the lizard circle the drain, families like the Dorenkamps, in Holly, Colorado see their livelihoods going the way of the dodo as well. Former pro rodeo rider, Fred, and his wife, Norma, proudly offer viewings of the lesser prairies chickens’ quirky mating dance, as well as room at their bed and breakfast. While those congressmen who are asking Congress to pre-empt its listing won’t admit it, the chicken has value to the Dorenkamps, as do numerous threatened and endangered species that support countless other businesses across the West tapping into wildlife and agro-tourism.

Wildlife watchers paid $122.6 billion into the national economy in 2006 (the most recent year for which data is available); resulting in 1.1 million jobs and federal tax revenue of $9.3 billion. It’s no wonder then that, year after year, polls show that a majority of Americans support the ESA.

In its own brochure, the FWS extols the pricelessness of our biological resources. “No matter how small or obscure a species, it could one day be of direct importance to us all,” it says. It’s a good thing the fungus that gave us penicillin wasn’t a political pawn. Or the Pacific yew, once loathed by loggers as a “trash tree,” which was nearly eliminated before it became the source of taxol, one of the most powerful anti-cancer compounds ever discovered.  Nevermind the blood thinner derived from the venom of the saw-scaled viper, the protein from the pit viper that appears to limit the spread of melanoma cells, or the tarantula poison that seems promising in fueling new treatments for Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders.

The ESA recognizes the fact that biodiversity is meaningful to humans on many levels, and acts on the reality that many species, maligned by humans, need a helping hand. Furthermore, ESA protection works, as long as species have dedicated recovery plans in place in time to give them a fighting chance at survival. Without it, we’d likely have no bald eagles, gray whales, American alligators, brown pelicans or peregrine falcons, which have all recovered with ESA protection.

Yet, year after year, legally-binding deadlines for protection are flouted. As the chicken and lizard (and many other contentious species) demonstrate, along with a correlation of the rate of listings with presidential administrations, political opposition to listings is a major factor. While there has been a large influx of petitions recently, in years when there hasn’t been, the same heel-dragging occurred. Roughly 65 species per year where listed during each year of the Clinton administration. Fewer species than that were listed by the FWS during Bush, Jr.’s entire eight-year administration.

Two years ago, President Obama told a packed auditorium at the Department of the Interior, “Today I've signed a memorandum that will help restore the scientific process to its rightful place at the heart of the Endangered Species Act, a process undermined by past administrations.”

The FWS clearly needs further encouragement to focus on the science of protecting species, not on the politics of further imperiling them. Let’s give the agency the resources it needs to do its job of enhancing and enforcing the ESA. It should be able to field new petitions while clearing the decks of the hundreds of species on its candidate list, into which it has already sunk numerous resources, and move them along to full protection as quickly as possible. To whomever argues that we can’t afford to do this, I wonder, can we really afford not to?

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

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