Delays in Endangered Species Act Protections Lead to Extinctions

By Nowicki, Brian | Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2004 | Go to article overview

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. …

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