Delays in Endangered Species Act Protections Lead to Extinctions
Nowicki, Brian, Earth Island Journal
By 1968, it was well known that the Marshall's pearly mussel, a distinctively colored freshwater mussel that lived in the Tombigbee River and its tributaries in Alabama and Mississippi, was highly imperiled due to river development and engineering projects. However, in a tragic case of political interference, the federal government did not place the pearly mussel on the endangered species list until 1987, well after the enactment of the Endangered Species Act that is meant to protect species such as these--and a full seven years after the animal had become extinct.
It is one of many animals and plants that went extinct while the federal government delayed endangered species protections, according to a report recently released by the Center for Biological Diversity. The report found that 108 animals and plants are known to have become extinct since the creation of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, including 83 plants and animals for which endangered species protections were significantly delayed.
Together, these species' stories document how the failure to implement the Endangered Species Act adequately and in a timely manner has allowed the extinction of many of these plants and animals. Some 25 of these became extinct in the first few years of the Endangered Species Act, before any protections had been implemented.
Twenty-nine others became extinct before they had been officially identified as candidates for endangered species listing, such as Florida's emerald seaslug, California's Breckenridge Mountain slender salamander, the Oregon giant earthworm, and West Virginia's Rich Mountain cave beetle.
Another 11 became extinct despite eventual listing as endangered species; due to significant delays in the listing process, the protections came too late. These include California's Fresno kangaroo rat, several species of Hawai'i's Oahu tree snails, the Mariana mallard, and the golden coqui, a Puerto Rican amphibian.
However, the majority--49 plants and animals--went extinct while the federal government delayed endangered species protections, in many cases purposefully. All of these plants and animals had been identified as imperiled, either by Fish and Wildlife Service reports or scientific petitions submitted by citizens or conservation organizations.
In many cases, the Fish and Wildlife Service identified the plants and animals as needing endangered species protections, but delayed these protections by instead placing them on the candidate list, an administrative waiting list that provides no protections and has no time limit. Many plants and animals became extinct while they remained on the candidate list or while the Fish and Wildlife Service endlessly reviewed petitions and reports.
In the case of the Marshall's pearly mussel, construction on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway project--a two-billion-dollar effort by the Army Corps of Engineers to connect the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers through 205 miles of man-made canals and locks--was set to commence in 1971 when a federal judge halted the project. The judge sided with conservation groups that asserted that the federal government had nor adequately analyzed the environmental impacts of the massive river engineering--impacts that were expected to include the extinction of five native mussel species. In fact, the US Department of Interior also submitted a letter warning of the impending extinctions.
However, waterway construction began again in 1972 when a federal court ruled it was not expressly illegal to cause a species to go extinct.
The following December, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 changed that. From that day forward, the Army Corps of Engineers and all government agencies were prohibited from causing the extinction of plants and animals on the federal endangered species list. At that point, if the Fish and Wildlife Service had listed the mussels as endangered, the waterway project would have had to be redesigned in order to save them. But that is not what happened.
To avoid conflict with powerful lobbies supporting the waterway project, the Fish and Wildlife Service delayed listing the imperiled mussels for several more years while waterway construction got underway. In 1976, the Office of Endangered Species issued another warning about the likely extinction of the mussels. Two years later, Fish and Wildlife Service biologists spoke out against the delayed protections. Finally, in 1979 the US General Accounting Office issued a report exposing the politicization of the endangered species listing process, prompting the Fish and Wildlife Service to announce in 1980 that the mussels were being considered for listing as endangered species.
The government postponed the actual listing for several more years, until 1987. By then, the waterway project was well underway, and the Marshall's pearly mussel had been extinct for seven years.
Marshall's pearly mussel is just one of many species that went extinct while the Fish and Wildlife Service delayed endangered species protections. There are numerous other examples.
The four-angled pelea is a sprawling shrub found on the forested mountain slopes of Kauai, Hawai'i. The pelea was last seen in 1991 after waiting 16 years without protection as the Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed its petition.
The keeled sideband is a terrestrial snail found in the forests of the Sierra Nevada of California. The sideband was listed as a candidate in 1984--the last year that it was see--after waiting 11 years for endangered species protections.
The Amak Island song sparrow is a songbird that nests in the tundra of Alaska's Aleutian Islands. The Amak Island sparrow declined for eight years while under petition, and was last seen in 1988.
An even more tragic example is the Guam broadbill, a small, blue, fly-catching bird that inhabited forests and mangrove swamps of the United States territory of Guam. The broadbill declined due to habitat destruction and predation by brown tree snakes that were introduced to the island.
The songbird had already been lost from two thirds of its habitat by the time the Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973, but a significant population still existed and could have been saved through protection and captive breeding. However, no action was taken to protect the broadbill until the Governor of Guam petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1979. At the same time, the governor also requested that the northern coastline be designated as critical habitat for the bird.
The Fish and Wildlife Service placed the broadbill on the candidate list, where it waited until 1983--and until the population had already declined to as few as 100 individuals in just 150 acres of forest habitat. The last Guam broadbill was seen in March 1984. The Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bird as endangered five months later--five years after the governor had petitioned to protect it.
The broadbill is just one of many Guam species or subspecies that became extinct while the government delayed urgently needed protections, including the Mariana fruit bat, Guam bridled white-eye, Guam cardinal honey-eater, and Guam rufous fantail.
The Center for Biological Diversity report found the highest numbers of extinctions in the United States have taken place in the Pacific islands, the western states, and the southeastern states, and almost half of all extinctions since the enactment of the Endangered Species Act have occurred in Hawai'i.
There is, however, a strong indication that when properly implemented, the Endangered Species Act has been successful at saving species from extinction. Of the more than 1,200 species in the United States that have been listed as threatened or endangered, only 23 have become extinct, and 12 of those suffered significant delays in protections. That is a success rate of over 98 percent--in so far as these species are still alive in the wild today.
Unfortunately, delays and extinctions have plagued the Fish and Wildlife Service over the entire 30 years of the Endangered Species Act. Currently, the Bush administration is greatly exacerbating the problem by systematically delaying and denying endangered species listings, achieving the far lowest listing rate in the history of the Endangered Species Act. In fact, the Bush administration has so far listed only 31 species as threatened and endangered, compared to 521 under Clinton and 234 under the first Bush administration. Furthermore, the current administration has failed to list a single endangered species except in response to citizen petitions and lawsuits.
The Center for Biological Diversity has called upon the Bush administration to immediately propose endangered species listings for all 256 plants and animals currently waiting on the candidate list, and to develop a five-year plan to finalize endangered species protections for them all.
The Center for Biological Diversity report can be found at www.biological-diversiry.reports.org.
Brian Nowicki is a conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Delays in Endangered Species Act Protections Lead to Extinctions. Contributors: Nowicki, Brian - Author. Magazine title: Earth Island Journal. Volume: 19. Issue: 3 Publication date: Autumn 2004. Page number: S6+. © 1999 Earth Island Institute. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.