Sharing the Rewards of Endangered Species Recovery

Article excerpt

The Endangered Species Act ranked as one of the most popular laws ever when it was enacted in 1973. It passed with almost unanimous support in Congress, following the ground-breaking research by the Fish and Wildlife Service that linked DDT, a commonly used pesticide, to the thinning of egg shells in a number of bird species.

One of these was the peregrine falcon. During the early days of the Endangered Species Act, I cared for rivet of these then-endangered falcons at Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Ground. As a young biology student, I felt fortunate to hold newborn chicks in my hands and to have grown peregrines perch on my forearm. I knew the species was on the verge of disappearing, but I was confident that America's support for the Endangered Species Act would ultimately save the world's fastest bird from extinction.

My faith in the public's resolve was strengthened by my first professional experiences. In the 1980's, as a biologist for the U.S. Army, I saw the care our Armed Forces took to conserve endangered species on our military bases worldwide. Then in 1985 there came some truly inspiring news; for the first time ever, an endangered species--the brown pelican--had recovered to the extent that it warranted delisting, albeit only in part of its range. Two years later, the American alligator became the first species on our continent to fully recover and be removed rangewide from the endangered species list.

It was in 1988, during this period of public support and celebration, that I joined the Fish and Wildlife Service. In that year, the endangered species program operated on a budget of about $30 million to care for the more than 500 U.S. species listed as threatened or endangered. I began as a staff biologist in Washington, D.C., and went on to become Chief for Endangered Species, first in the Albuquerque Regional Office and then back in Washington. Eventually I became the Assistant Director for Ecological Services and finally the Director. Over that time, I saw the endangered species program expand dramatically. Today, with nearly 1,200 U.S. species listed, the program receives appropriations of roughly $130 million.

To a large extent, this growth came in response to the increase in the number and the complexity of endangered species issues. These factors in turn transformed the Endangered Species Act for some people into a lightning rod for discontent about wildlife management. I witnessed the transformation myself when the spotted owl controversy hit the agency. I'll never forget Congressional hearings at which lawmakers accused the Act of putting people out of work. Of course, it wasn't the Endangered Species Act that cost people their livelihood, but the perceived conflict between endangered species and jobs was sensationalized by many in the media.

What we have done since the spotted owl controversy is nothing short of amazing. …