Environmentalists Say 'Hot Spots' Will Make Conservation Easier

Article excerpt

Congress is hoping for bipartisan reform of the Endangered Species Act, but a new study complicates the issue. Fragile animals and plants are located in a few `hot spots,' and no one is sure what that means.

Nearly 24 years after it was enacted by Congress, the Endangered Species Act, or ESA, remains controversial, the subject of protracted and often rancorous debate and litigation. Innocuous species such as the snail darter and spotted owl have become objects of scorn, while otherwise law-abiding landowners have been known to rid their property of rare species -- including nesting bald eagles -- rather than deal with federal oversight.

Nevertheless, the act's supporters argue it's needed more than ever as extinction rates soar -- by some estimates as much as 1,000 times the geological average. Opponents, meanwhile, insist it is a political tool used by overzealous environmentalists intent on blocking reasonable development.

Congress is divided on the issue. While it hasn't reauthorized the act since 1992, it continues to fund it -- about $100 million annually -- on an annual basis. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have been able to muster support for significant reform, although staff members on the relevant House and Senate committees are hoping for a bipartisan bill this year. But no one is betting on it, particularly in light of the latest turn of events.

An analysis prepared jointly by Princeton University's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Environmental Defense Fund, or EDF, indicates that a large number of America's endangered species inhabit a small portion of the land. Working with data supplied by the US. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency which administer ESA, researchers created maps showing that most of the 924 species classified as endangered inhabit only 2 percent of the land in 15 states.

Specifically, the average endangered mammal lives in only 33 of 2,858 counties in the database. Birds, which tend to be more wide-ranging, inhabit an average of only 63 counties. Even plants, which comprise the bulk of the endangered-species roster, are relatively confined. Half of them reside in just single counties.

Overall, America's endangered species are concentrated in four "hot spots": the Hawaiian Islands, Central and Southern Florida and the southern regions of California and Appalachia. These areas tend to be unique and fragile ecosystems -- Hawaii's isolated islands and California's serpentine ridges, for example. They also are attractive to real-estate and commercial developers.

Yet the researchers offer good news, too: It should be possible to make major strides to protect endangered species by concentrating conservation efforts within these small geographical areas, according to David S. Wilcove, co-author of the analysis. For one, he says, the analysis ought to dispel "the notion some people have that, given enough time, there will be an endangered species in everyone's backyard." To the contrary. Wilcove, an ecologist with the EDF, believes that most of the next 100 or so species added to the list will inhabit the hotspot areas.

Whether this news will change the tenor of the endangered-species debate remains to be seen. According to H. Ronald Pulliam of the University of Georgia, endemic species -- those that reside within relatively small habitats -- are only part of the problem. …