U.S. Endangered Species Management: The Influence of Politics

By Stinchcombe, John R. | Endangered Species Update, November 2000 | Go to article overview

U.S. Endangered Species Management: The Influence of Politics


Stinchcombe, John R., Endangered Species Update


Abstract

The influence of politics on the practice of conservation science and endangered species management is widely accepted, but usually reported in case studies. This approach, while helpful, prevents a comprehensive assessment of the role of politics in endangered species management. In an attempt to asses the influence of politics on the management of U.S. endangered species, this article compares the number of endangered species listings and recovery, plan approvals during the last three presidential administrations. Results indicate that the Clinton administration appears to have approved significantly more endangered species listings and multispecies recovery plans that did Presidents Reagan and Bush. Once differences in U.S. Fish and Wildlife employee numbers are accounted for, however, these differences disappear. These results suggest that politics does influence endangered species management, and that this influence is manifested by different commitments of human and financial resources.

Introduction

Conservation biology is a discipline that seeks to prevent the extinction of species and the associated loss of biodiversity. When the preservation of biodiversity conflicts with economic development or other social goals, conservation issues often become deeply politicized (e.g., the case of Northern Spotted Owl and timber interests). In these cases of competing interests and goals, conservation efforts are pursued in a political process--a process that determines both who governs and in whose interests the government is run. At the national level, actions by the president, congress, and courts are all measures of a changing balance in the competition for power and advantage, and this balance of power determines what conservation policies prevail, and thus in whose interests the government is run.

While some conservation biologists advocate the involvement of scientists in this political process, even to the point of filing briefs of amici curiae in the U.S. Supreme Court (e.g., Cairns et al. 1994), others have cautioned that involvement of conservation biologists in political and legal disputes will compromise their public standing as impartial scientists (Wagner 1999). Despite this debate about whether the involvement of scientists in political disputes is beneficial, that politics definitely influences the practice of conservation is neither questioned nor debated. However, the extent to which politics influences conservation practices has proven to be difficult to quantify, and is generally reported as anecdotes. The U.S. Endangered Species Act, therefore, represents an ideal case study with which to evaluate the influence of politics on endangered species conservation using simple but easily quantifiable variables.

The U.S. Endangered Species Act (E.S.A) is the nation's strongest and most powerful conservation tool, and has served as a model for other countries (Rohlf 1991). The full mechanics of how the E.S.A. functions have been described in detail elsewhere (Bean 1983; Nicholopolos 1999). Briefly, a decision is made to list a species as threatened or endangered, either by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS); these agencies publish their intent to list species in the U.S. Federal Register. After a period of public comment, a final decision by FWS or NMFS on whether to list a species is also published in the Federal Register. Once species have been listed, FWS and NMFS are mandated to produce recovery plans for each species, or for groups of species for so-called "ecosystem" or "multispecies" recovery plans that include suites of species. The recovery plan represents steps FWS and NMFS believe are necessary for the long term survival of the species. A species is ultimately delisted when certain objectives or recovery criteria are met that indicate that long-term survival is ensured.

There are at least three potential sources of political influence in the endangered species management process: listing, recovery plan approval, and delisting. …

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