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Endangered Species Act: Noah’s Ark or Titanic? (News Analysis)

Craig Collins, Ph.D.
Tuesday June 01, 2010 - 11:49:00 AM

The Endangered Species Act is the equivalent of a tiny bandage on a gaping wound. Congress passed the ESA in 1973 under intense public pressure to save a growing number of species from extinction. Groups like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund fostered sympathy for the plight of cute or charismatic creatures like pandas and blue whales to raise awareness about the extinction crisis. These campaigns were so effective that the media still portrays the struggle to preserve biodiversity as an altruistic endeavor pressed upon society by tree-hugger environmentalists seeking to rescue creatures on the verge of extinction. 

This perception was fairly accurate back when extinctions seldom topped 100 a year. At that pace, it seemed reasonable for the ESA to list species for protection one at a time. But those days are over. Today, untold thousands face extinction because the ecosystems they inhabit are collapsing under the relentless assault of human encroachment. Many biologists believe we have instigated the 6th great extinction episode in Earth’s history; some estimate the pace of extinction has soared to 100,000 species a year. Renowned paleoanthropologist, Richard Leakey, believes half of the Earth’s species will vanish within 100 years and warns that this die-off could come sooner if greenhouse gases wreak havoc with the Earth’s climate. Preserving biodiversity is no longer an altruistic enterprise—it’s a matter of human survival. 

Without nature, we're toast. We really need this to “sink in” before it’s too late. The mysterious collapse of bee colonies around the world threatens all the crops they pollinate. The alarming die-off of North American bats is wiping out a major insect predator that prevents our harvests from becoming bug food. The acidification and warming of the oceans undermines the survival of the corals and zooplankton that sustain the marine food chain. 

We have to stop thinking of “nature” as something we visit while camping or watch on the Discovery channel. Nature purifies our water, pollinates our crops, regulates our climate, recycles our wastes and provides us with food, clothing, medicine and shelter. We can’t survive without it. Preserving biodiversity isn’t about saving charismatic creatures—it’s about saving ourselves. 

So, has Endangered Species Act reduced the rate of extinction in the United States? The 1,925 species officially listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA are just a small fraction of the creatures facing extinction. The exact size of this fraction is difficult to determine because of the vast number of plants and animals we know little or nothing about. But biologists estimate the law only covers between 1 and 30 percent of all species facing extinction in the US. 

The ESA’s arduous listing process is its most onerous defect. Listing species for protection one-by-one, instead of preserving the integrity of entire ecosystems, is an expensive, rigorous, time consuming ordeal constrained by scientific ignorance, bureaucratic intransigence, political pressure, partisan politics and budgetary shortfalls. Species designated as “candidates for listing” wait on average 20 years to get listed. Meanwhile, many go extinct. But even species lucky enough to be listed have a slim chance of survival. Only 19 of the 1,925 listed species have recovered enough to make it off the endangered list. This abysmal .1 percent recovery rate is the result of pernicious loopholes in the law. 

The ESA requires every endangered species to be assigned a critical habitat and a recovery plan. However, this rarely happens because the agencies in charge of enforcement have been hijacked by powerful mining, timber, oil and gas interests who oppose all restrictions on their exploitation of natural resources. Agency officials misuse minor legal exemptions to deny critical habitat designations to over 80 percent of all listed species and leave 40 percent without recovery plans. Consequently, only 10 percent of all listed species are improving, 30 percent are considered stable and 60 percent continue to slip toward extinction. 

The overriding weakness in the ESA is that no legal barrier can possibly halt the juggernaut of economic escalation at the heart of our extinction crisis. Human intrusions like urban sprawl, deforestation, road and dam building, industrial agriculture, grazing, mining, oil drilling, over-fishing, marine pollution, and harvesting wild species for food, sport and profit all continue to shred the web of life that supports us. 

The ESA’s inability to slow the pace of extinction reflects the fact that we are caught up in a malignant economic system so driven by the demands of consumption and profit that it must devour, expand and pollute at a suicidal pace. Reversing this unfolding calamity is beyond the scope of any law. It requires the transformation of our entire economic system to bring it into balance with the planet. 

Craig Collins, Ph.D. Author of the newly released book, TOXIC LOOPHOLES: Failures and Future prospects of Environmental Law (Cambridge University Press) Teaches environmental law & policy at California State University East Bay (Dept. of Political Science)