What's Endangered is Honest Debate

I’m having a flashback. It’s been triggered by all these bobble heads at the NYT discussing the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Amazingly, not one of these very smart bobble heads is an actual conservation biologist, who would, if he or she was given truth serum, have said that our most noble, high-minded environmental law is an unmitigated failure.

And will remain a tragic failure until environmentalists feel they have no choice but to trust that their efforts to reform the law won’t instead be exploited by Republicans to strangle it dead.

You thought the politics of climate change was ugly? Sheesh, the bitter fights over the ESA were the warm-up act. Now, let’s party like it’s 1999, when I wrote this passage in a feature story, entitled “Vanishing Act,” 12 years ago in The Sciences (now defunct, sadly):

Of the 1,200 or so species that have received special attention, only eleven have recovered; seven have gone extinct. But no one–not politicians, not biologists, not property-rights advocates–seems to know how to fix the ESA, which has engendered so much resentment that some landowners have resorted to killing potentially protected species before the legal hammer could come down. Many Democrats and environmentalists are reluctant to acknowledge the law’s all-too-obvious weaknesses, lest Republican critics use those admissions as further ammunition for trashing the law altogether. The result is a contentious, stalled mess, and the ESA, which wields the legal force of a thousand-pound gorilla, is ecologically about as effective as a paper tiger.

And this was before global warming came into the mix. Today, there’s hardly mention of endangered species and biodiversity in the mainstream media. Climate change gets all the attention. And it’s the global warming angle that prompts the bobble headed debate at the Times, under this headline, “Saving species as the climate changes,” and this subhead, “Regulators say they are overwhelmed by lawsuits to save flora and fauna endangered by global warming. What’s the answer?”

Of course, none of the commentators have any answers. But Steven Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute explains why the whole discussion is a futile exercise:

Candid environmentalists know the act works poorly, but are unwilling to support possible reform for fear that Congress will gut the act completely — better something that works poorly than nothing at all. Perhaps they are right in this calculation.

One of these days I’m going to get around to discussing the very interesting parallels between the once upon a time, hotly contested, politicized debate over the Endangered Species Act and our toxic, politicized climate debate. In the meantime, anyone want to have a go at it?

5 Responses to “What's Endangered is Honest Debate”

  1. jeffn says:

    I think the problem is that environmentalists get trapped in a vicious circle of their own making. They need a “hook” for their fund raising and political action messages (a cuddly animal, a “cheap and easy” AGW “fix”). From there you get the over-reach on regulation or taxation that causes people to examine the wilder claims – leading inevitably to a backlash. The green movement can’t back track- the naive ones have come to believe their own press releases and the smart ones know that absent the dire threat, there is no money.
    On the climate side- greens argued for a decade now that there was no reason to discuss the science- it’s “settled” so why bother? So you had three pillars of communication on which all of the fund raising and political activity was centered- 1. enviros were vastly outspent by “industry groups” and their stooges and desperately needed any donation you could make. 2. “Cap-n-trade” is an effective solution that costs just a “postage stamp a day” and is very popular and easy to implement. 3. a small handful of Republicans is the only obstacle to “action” so get out and vote and donate to the other party!
    The Center for American Progress and WWF went all-in on those three pillars- if they aren’t true, there is no reason to donate to them. Nisbet is the latest to demonstrate that none of the three pillars are true and follows the Breakthrough Institute, Monbiot and Lomberg.

  2. Gaythia says:

    The hotly contested endangered species act is not “once upon a time”, here out west currently there is a very heated argument going on about making, as a special case, wolves exempt from the program.
    The heart of the issue as I see it is that we have worked to preserve individual species, but without much regard for the harder issues of overall ecology and habitat.  So we end up with what amount to isolated mini-zoos.
    Global climate change is going to make this much more difficult, as some of these mini habitats become uninhabitable by their current resident species, and some species are able to move on to more hospitable places.
    Take for example this king crab story: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110419191022.htm
    Should we cope with this change by fighting this “invasive species” and, perhaps,  moving our crab fisheries to Antarctica?

  3. Keith Kloor says:


    My larger point is that biodiversity and endangered species issues are no longer part of the public discourse. When I was an an editor at Audubon magazine in the 2000s, I felt that the stuff I covered was also covered by mainstream media. That is no longer the case, as climate change has come to dominate most media coverage. Just look at the lack of comments to this post.

    That said, it’s true that these issues get more local and regional play where they are most relevant.

    Lastly, let me point out that in that 12-year-old article of mine I reference in the post, I juxtapose the single species approach with the FWS multi-species plans that were just starting to emerge. How that all shook out deserves revisiting.


    Those are some good parallels (though a bit simplified), but there are others I’d like to touch on soon.

  4. Gaythia says:

    Revisiting discussions of FWS multispecies plans sounds like an excellent idea.

    But,  I’m here, out west.  And so what I read with breakfast recently is not the NYT but the opinion piece below about a giant controversy that is being orchestrated by outsiders who “don’t really understand us”.  So if you are not “in hysterics” back there, maybe you should let someone know about it?
    From Vincent Carrol, Denver Post:
    “Wolves are “ON THEIR OWN,” blared the alarmist headline on the Defenders of Wildlife website. What, haven’t you heard? Congress has offered up the wolf as a “sacrificial lamb.”
    … The New York Times got the wolf controversy exactly backward when it reported, “The fact that the (Interior) department is being required to do what it had originally intended to do did not take the edge off arguments from environmental advocates that Congress had crossed a crucial line.”

    …”But are activists or judges more credible on such issues? A legal brief in the wolf case filed by environmental groups in 2009 maintains that the region’s wolf population “has not yet achieved recovery” and, incredibly, faults Fish and Wildlife for indicating that “We never intended, nor do we think it is realistic, to recover the species across the entire lower-48 States.”
    The arguments over whether Fish and Wildlife may lift endangered species protections from only part of the wolf’s range involve esoteric interpretations of the law, which for the time being are moot. And the hysterical reaction to this fact says a good deal more about environmental activists than the future of the wolf.”

    Read more: Carroll: Gray wolf’s defenders in hysterics – The Denver Post http://www.denverpost.com/search/ci_17859055#ixzz1Kkd1K8Qk
    Read The Denver Post’s Terms of Use of its content: http://www.denverpost.com/termsofuse

  5. Gaythia says:

    The way that the endangered species act is applied does lead to some possibilities for back door ecosystem protection.  However, the manner in which these protections are too frequently accomplished leaves the door open, in my opinion, for some very negative spin and political back-splash, while largely avoiding big picture discussion.
    For example this current local case, is, I believe much more about  “cold, clear, clean streams”,  than it is about flies:
    “Through time, listing the snowfly as endangered would force the U.S. Forest Service and the FWS to take a hard look at what kind of recreation is permitted in the two canyons while keeping the survival of the snowfly in mind, Rosmarino said.Scientists consider the snowfly an “indicator” species, which is a harbinger of the overall health of the Poudre River watershed ecosystem.”
    Technical information can be found here: http://govpulse.us/entries/2011/04/26/2011-9973/endangered-and-threatened-wildlife-and-plants-90-day-finding-on-a-petition-to-list-the-arapahoe-snow#id449499
    This points out that these flies are species that do live in small, isolated ecological niches:
    “Most stoneflies are clumsy fliers that have difficulty crossing even small ecological barriers (Hynes 1976, p. 135). Consequently, they are poor dispersers (Lillehammer et al.1989, p. 173). However, precise dispersal capabilities for the Arapahoe snowfly are unknown”
    This petition also adds the “climate change” argument, in a very generalized way: “The petition asserts that small population size and climate change threaten the Arapahoe snowfly……The petition asserts that global climate change may impact the species through increased floods and droughts and management actions taken in response to the proliferation of mountain pine beetles.” 
    Maybe we do still “party like it is 1999” around here!  And now we’ve figured out how to add climate change to the mix!

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