All Creatures Great and Small

Species preservation out of control


In Washington state, logger Dean Hurn is worried. He could be among the estimated 40,000 to 100,000 timber workers who will lose their jobs to protect the Northern spotted owl.

In Riverside County, California, developer William Lyon is upset. In a place where new home prices start in the six figures, the sites for the 100,000 new low-cost single-family homes he and other developers were going to build have been ruled off limits to protect the Stephens kangaroo rat.

In Florida's Polk and Highland counties, 600 landowners can't build the homes they planned because their property is home to the Florida scrub jay. In these and many other cases, the Endangered Species Act has halted the plans and dreams of thousands of ordinary Americans.

The act is up for renewal this year, and one might expect a piece of legislation that has harmed so many people to be itself endangered, or, at the very least, the subject of a fierce battle. One would be wrong.

"No one wants to be seen as anti-environment," says Cato Institute environmental analyst R.J. Smith. "I've been in meetings with these guys [leaders of affected industries], and they make it clear they aren't going to oppose the act, just try to finagle some special exemption for themselves."

The Endangered Species Act is sacrosanct because environmentalists and their friends inside the Beltway have convinced almost everyone that massive species extinction is occurring, that it threatens to destroy entire ecosystems, and that only the extreme measures legislated by the act can prevent an ecological catastrophe. The problem is that none of these assertions is supported by hard facts.

To understand the Endangered Species Act, one must look at its origins. In 1964, the U.S. Department of the Interior established the Committee on Rare and Endangered Wildlife Species to study the state of North American wildlife. Two years later, the committee reported that 83 native species were endangered. But the committee noted that it based its list on incomplete data and that there was disagreement among the members about which species to list.

"One fish species, the humpback chub, was identified as endangered even though its fecundity, estimated numbers, reasons for decline, former distribution, and potential for captive breeding were all unknown," reported political scientist Richard Tobin in his book The Expendable Future.

Despite the lack of data, Congress quickly made it illegal to "pursue, hunt, shoot, capture, collect, kill, or attempt to pursue, hunt, shoot, capture, collect or kill" the listed animals within any area of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

For the next half decade, federal policy on endangered species was mainly confined to expanding this initial list and preventing the hunting of endangered species on federal land. But following the first Earth Day in 1970, environmentalists placed enormous pressure on Congress to do more to stop the perceived loss of species. This campaign bore fruit in the 1973 Endangered Species Act, which gave the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sweeping powers to protect endangered species on private as well as public lands.

Congress has modified the act several times over the last two decades. Mostly, these modifications have been procedural changes in the listing and classification of endangered species. In 1988, Congress made the biggest change, extending full protection of endangered plants to those on private land.

Though the act is lengthy and verbose even by modern legal standards, a few key passages sum up its essence. First, the law is supposed to provide a "means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species may be conserved." Effectively, this provision switches the focus from the species themselves to the ecosystems in which they live; thus, the battle in the Pacific Northwest isn't really over the Northern spotted owl but over the millions of acres that Fish and Wildlife has determined must be declared off limits to logging and development for the owl to survive.

The act also directs the Fish and Wildlife Service to use "all methods and procedures which are necessary to bring any endangered species or threatened species to the point at which the measures provided pursuant to the Act are no longer necessary." So Fish and Wildlife must protect any species it finds endangered, and it has wide-ranging power to do whatever it feels necessary to achieve its goals, regardless of the costs.

Although the act also calls for Fish and Wildlife to enact plans to recover endangered and threatened species, the agency has been much more interested in adding new species to its list. Fish and Wildlife hasn't even developed recovery plans for 224 of the 581 species it lists as endangered or threatened.

A study released in late 1991 by the National Wilderness Institute found that Fish and Wildlife had delisted only five species: the alligator, three animal species from a U.S. protectorate near the Philippines, and a plant called the Ryberg Milk-Vetch. And NWI says that the four animal species may have been on the list in the first place only because they were undercounted. Indeed, the agency itself argued last year in a report on its progress in enforcing the act that "removal from the list is not a reasonable goal for all endangered species."

Meanwhile, there are 3,000 more species that Fish and Wildlife feels may "warrant listing" following further review. This means that the agency will almost certainly add millions more acres to the 87 million it currently controls.

Ecologists have argued that only such sweeping powers can stave off the threat of massive species extinctions caused by man's activity. In his 1979 book The Sinking Ark, naturalist Norman Myers estimated that the world had lost one species per day during the 1970s and would lose one per hour during the 1980s. A year later, the Global 2000 Report to the President, relying in part on Myers, estimated that by the end of this century deforestation and industrial activity could wipe out 15 percent to 20 percent of all the planet's species. "This means that of the 3–10 million species now present on the earth, at least 500,000–600,000 will be extinguished during the next two decades."

In 1981, Thomas Lovejoy opted for the higher of these estimates, predicting 20 percent of all species would be lost. But Paul and Anne Ehrlich went even further, stating that half of all species would be extinct by the year 2000. Ten years later, Paul Ehrlich seemed to revise that estimate; in 1991, he co-authored an article in Science with E.O. Wilson that estimated that 25 percent of all the earth's species would be extinct by the year 2041.

While environmentalists may disagree over the exact numbers, they all agree that the rate of species extinction is tremendous. But there's a problem with all of the estimates.

"They're all frauds," says economist Julian Simon. In 1984, he and political scientist Aaron Wildavsky examined the predictions of the Global 2000 Report. They found that it provided no data for its predictions of massive species extinction; indeed, they characterized the report's estimates of then-current rates of species extinction as "pure guesswork." Simon and Wildavsky also examined the predictions of Lovejoy, the Ehrlichs, and Myers, and found similar guesswork.

In the intervening years, environmentalists have produced new computer-generated estimates of species extinction, but none of the new techniques have changed Simon's mind. The models, he cautions, are only as good as the data they are based upon. "I'm still looking for the data," he says.

For years, Simon and Wildavsky were all but alone in their skepticism. But recently, even some in the scientific community have begun to question the predictions. In an August 1991 article in Science, Charles C. Mann noted that "only four of 22 predictions came with sufficient explanation to permit independent examination. All of the rest provide anecdotal support—or none at all. Even one prominent conservationist—who demanded anonymity, explaining that 'they'll kill me for saying this'—admitted that 'the lack of data does worry me.' He then added: 'I'm absolutely sure we're right, but a gut feeling isn't much backup when you're asking people all over the world to change their lives completely.'"

And the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment claims that the wide discrepancy in predictions calls "into question the credibility of all such estimates."

Environmentalists often cannot even agree on how many species there are to begin with. In 1980, the Global 2000 Report stated that there were 3 million to 10 million species on earth. In 1991, Ehrlich and Wilson argued for 100 million species. Ehrlich and Wilson also hold that up to 25 million species may become extinct by the middle of the next century. That's more than double the number of species thought to exist 10 years earlier.

Part of the problem is estimating the number of species we haven't identified. Taxonomists have identified only around 1.4 million species. But Ehrlich, Wilson, and others argue that there are tens of millions of unidentified species, particularly in the Amazon rain forest. (Indeed, they also argue that that is where most species loss occurs.) Simon responds that even their estimates of existing undiscovered species are pure guesswork.

Wilson told Science that, while "of course" more data are needed, the extinction problem, particularly in tropical forests, is "absolutely undeniable." There are, he said, "literally hundreds of anecdotal reports."

Still, there is an even more fundamental problem, one with a direct effect on the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. "There is considerable disagreement over what is a species," says Wildavsky. "For example, some taxonomists say there are eight species of squirrels, others say there are as many as 87. The disagreements can be quite large."

Says Montana State University biologist David Cameron, "Most people think that species simply exist and that scientists just find and identify them, that there are some sort of Platonic ideals that each separate species conforms to." It isn't quite that simple. "Evolutionary theory teaches that life is in a constant process of adaptation and evolution. Scientists are thus presented with tremendous diversity and variety in the creatures they study."

Consequently, scientists need some convenient way to catalog plants and animals to facilitate their studies. Going back to Linnaeus, taxonomists have grouped plants and animals together based upon common features: color, size, proportion of body parts. Those that have many similar features and have the ability to interbreed are grouped together as a separate species.

"Among the individuals in a species there is wide variety in features," says Cameron. "At the fringes, it may be difficult to tell whether an individual is a member of one species or another, related one."

So scientists can disagree over when two groups of animals are different enough to be called separate species. Modern genetic testing and refinements in evolutionary theory have reduced such disagreements, but they haven't been eliminated because the classification of species ultimately depends upon the judgments of taxonomists.

"In a sense, the criteria [that distinguish one species from another] can be arbitrary. In some of the butterflies that I study, species are distinguished from one another solely by the number of spots on their wings," says Cameron. "We try to pick those features that seem most relevant."

Note that the high-school definition of species—two individuals are of the same species if they are able to produce viable, fertile offspring—isn't the one that scientists use. "Two perfectly good species can be brought together and successfully hybridized—red wolves and coyotes for example. But we still would want to call them separate species," says Cameron.

But the Endangered Species Act offers a definition of species that differs both from that given by your high school biology teacher and from that used by biologists. The act states, "A 'species' includes any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife that interbreeds in nature."

Several decades ago Harvard zoologist Ernst Mayr offered what is now the standard definition of subspecies: "a geographically localized subdivision of the species, which differs genetically and taxonomically from other subdivisions of the species." In other words, a subspecies is a race.

The Northern spotted owl, for example, is, in fact, not a species but merely a subspecies of the spotted owl. The spotted owl is fairly common all along the Pacific coast. But the spotted owls of the Pacific Northwest differ from those of California in that they are larger, darker, have a rather different proportion of body parts, and have somewhat different markings. Where the ranges of the two meet, however, the birds look very similar. In the Northern Sierra mountains, even an expert might have trouble distinguishing a Northern spotted owl from its California cousins.

In practice, the subspecies and "distinct population" provisions of the law mean that while the species as a whole may not be endangered, some parts of it may be listed as endangered or threatened. Thus, only the Northern spotted owl is now listed. Scientists may one day find that development in California's Santa Monica mountains threatens a population there, so it too would get federal protection. But there could still remain thousands of unthreatened, unprotected spotted owls along the rest of its range.

Indeed, as of July 1991, 33 of the 51 U.S. mammals listed as endangered or threatened were actually subspecies. This includes such controversial animals as the Mount Graham red squirrel and the Stephens kangaroo rat. And 31 of the 60 birds listed were actually subspecies, including the Northern spotted owl.

But most biologists now argue against the formal recognition of subspecies or races. Again, remember that the purpose of taxonomical classification is to make the biologists' job easier, to help them easily classify the things they study. Since subspecies may differ in only one characteristic, and since the variability within any one species can be great, for any one species there can be dozens—perhaps hundreds—of subspecies, depending upon what characteristic one looks at. The concept of subspecies actually makes the cataloging of life more difficult, not easier.

Nonetheless, the biologists with whom I spoke support the Endangered Species Act's broad definition of species. Humboldt State University's Rocky Guitterez, a biologist studying the Northern spotted owl, argues that if we wait until an entire species is endangered to protect it, it may be too late to save it. The most effective way to protect a species is to act early and protect those parts that are endangered. Hence the need to protect "distinct population segments" as well as subspecies. Others point out that to scientists the most interesting members of a species may be those that are geologically separated or different in some way from the larger population.

"I think [the act's broad definition of species] says that biological diversity is important, and we don't want to be too narrow in our protection of it," says Montana State's Cameron.

But is it possible to be too zealous in our protection of biological diversity?

"Well, every individual produced by sexual reproduction is unique, so every death represents a loss of diversity. But we obviously shouldn't even try to save every individual organism, even if we could," says Cameron.

The limits we place on protecting diversity depend upon our reasons for valuing it. Perhaps the most commonly heard reason for protecting endangered species is that nature is a delicate, interconnected web, and the loss of any one species can destroy an entire ecosystem. As Paul and Anne Ehrlich stated in their book Extinction, "This argument is that other species are living components of vital ecological systems (ecosystems) which provide humanity with indispensable free services—services whose substantial disruption would lead inevitably to a collapse of civilization."

To support drastic action to prevent an ecological catastrophe, the Ehrlichs marry this argument to their thesis that species are becoming extinct at a massive rate. If the world were indeed threatened with the loss of 20 percent to 50 percent of existing species, it very well could lead to the destruction of entire ecosystems. But as we have seen, there's no reason to believe that species are declining at alarming rates.

But could the loss of a few species produce an environmental disaster? Environmentalists sometimes argue that because all parts of an ecosystem are connected, the loss of one species can affect all others. For example, the loss of the Northern spotted owl could lead to an increase in the numbers of the animals it preys on, which, in turn, could lead to changes in the plants and animals they eat and so on throughout the food chain. But changes aren't necessarily disastrous.

"I'm concerned about the loss of diversity. We should be very cautious about how our actions affect the environment," says Cameron. "But I don't think nature is quite as fragile as some people believe."

In a chapter of the E.O. Wilson-edited book Biodiversity titled "Why Put a Value on Biodiversity?", biologist David Ehrenfeld acknowledges, "We do not know how many species [of plants] are needed to keep the planet green, but it seems unlikely to be anywhere near the more than quarter of a million we have now. Even a mighty dominant like the American chestnut, extending over half a continent, all but disappeared without bringing the eastern deciduous forest down with it. And if we turn to the invertebrates, the source of nearly all biological diversity, what biologist is willing to find a value—conventional or ecological—for all 600,000-plus species of beetles?"

Indeed, Ehrenfeld admits that "the species whose members are fewest in number, the rarest, the most narrowly distributed—in short, the ones most likely to become extinct—are obviously the ones least likely to be missed by the biosphere. Many of these species were never common or ecologically influential; by no stretch of the imagination can we make them vital cogs in the ecological machine."

Mind you, Ehrenfeld still wants to protect endangered species and preserve biodiversity; he's just forced to admit that the "practical" arguments for doing so are weaker than environmentalists believe.

Instead, he argues that it is inherently wrong to destroy biological diversity. "The very existence of diversity is its very own warrant for survival. As in law, long-established existence confers a powerful right to a continued existence. And if more human-centered values are still deemed necessary, there are plenty available—for example, the value of the wonder, excitement, and challenge of so many species arising from a few dozen elements of the periodic table."

But death, extinction, and change are natural. To attempt to preserve every species is to try to end the process of evolution.

As biologist Norman D. Levine wrote in an article in the journal BioScience, "Perhaps 95% of the species that once existed no longer exist.…What species preservers are trying to do is stop the clock. It cannot and should not be done. Extinction is an inevitable fact of evolution. New species continually arise, and they are better adapted to their environment than those that have died out.…Would it improve the Earth if even half of the species that have died out were to return? A few starving shipwrecked sailors might be better off if the dodo were to return, but I would not be. The smallpox virus has been eliminated, except for a few strains in medical laboratories. Should it be brought back?"

Ehrenfeld's logic dictates that it should, but few people would take it that far. I doubt that Ehrenfeld would. And that highlights a central flaw in the Endangered Species Act. Almost all of us value biological diversity. We may have different reasons for valuing it, and we may place different values on it, but we all would want to preserve some diversity, if only because it makes the world a more interesting place.

But we also value other things: jobs, housing, privacy, the freedom to do what we want when we want with what we own—all of which are threatened by enforcement of the Endangered Species Act.

The Endangered Species Act enforces the views of those few people who value diversity above everything else. The problem is that they are not the ones who are paying the price for this enforcement. The cost falls instead on loggers in Washington, would-be homeowners in California and Florida, and taxpayers and property owners all over the United States.

We should repeal the Endangered Species Act. And environmentalists who really want to preserve diversity should be willing to pay for it. If, for example, the Stephens kangaroo rat is valuable, the Sierra Club or the Audubon Society should buy the land it lives on and turn it into a nature preserve. (This strategy of buying land specifically to preserve habitat for endangered species is exactly what the Nature Conservancy has pursued for years.)

If those who want to preserve biological diversity have to pay for their choices, rather than force the costs onto someone else, they will discover that people really do have to make trade-offs between conflicting values and that it really isn't possible—or desirable—to protect every species of beetle on the planet.

Charles Oliver is assistant editor of REASON.