No Spotted Owls in Your Backyard Most Endangered Species Live in 'Hot Spots'

By Brad Knickerbocker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 27, 1997 | Go to article overview

No Spotted Owls in Your Backyard Most Endangered Species Live in 'Hot Spots'


Brad Knickerbocker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


One of today's most contentious environmental issues - protection of endangered species - tends to generate alarmist comment by partisans on both sides.

Activists warn that the rate of extinction has accelerated to a level that is dangerously above normal. Critics of current protection laws say property rights are threatened by the prospect of zealots finding an endangered species in everybody's backyard.

Now, there is scientific evidence to support the notion that saving endangered species in the United States - while it remains a complicated and expensive job - would interfere with human activities in only a few, small places. That's the good news, according to researchers at Princeton University and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). The challenge is that most endangered plants and animals are concentrated near areas of high population and development. And in these hot spots of Hawaii, southern California, Florida, and parts of Appalachia, there is significant overlap of species in decline. Or as EDF senior ecologist David Wilcove puts it, "Some of these species are living on some pretty pricey real estate." Loss of habitat due to construction and farming is the greatest threat to plants and animals - particularly those that are endemic, or living only in a limited area. But the introduction of non-native species is a major problem as well. According to a recent report by The Nature Conservancy, such alien species are responsible for the decline of 42 percent of the federally listed endangered or threatened species. Conservancy president John Sawhill points out that the cost of such invaders to agriculture, fishing, electrical utilities, tourism, and other industries is "staggering." Perhaps the worst culprit in Hawaii is the feral pig, descended from domestic stock brought by settlers. The pigs are directly responsible for the destruction of many plant species, which in turn has led to erosion damaging to lakes and streams. Pigs also spread mosquitoes, which transmit diseases to native birds. The Princeton-EDF researchers (whose findings are detailed in the current issue of Science magazine) tracked 924 endangered species in 2,858 counties throughout the United States. They found that most of the species groups (plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, etc. …

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