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The Endangered Species Act of 1973 is one of the most powerful tools that environmentally concerned citizens have to preserve biodiversity. Specific categories that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) includes are the listing of "Threatened species", "Endangered species", and the designation of "critical habitat". When these categories are identified, it is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) which assumes the responsibility of enforcement. Development of recovery plans, Biological or Environmental Assessments, and the development of Habitat Conservation Plans are just some of the tasks for USFWS (Smallwood, et al,). This act which was originally enacted in 1973, and its’ reauthorization, is now going through quite a bit of debate. The ESA has actually been awaiting reauthorization from Congress since 1995 (Reid, 1995). There are two main "ideas" for bills to effect the ESA. There are bills that will strengthen the Act by emphasizing endangered species recovery over extinction risk. The other bills will weaken the Act by bringing more attention to the needs of businesses and landowners (Brown, et al). The main controversy seems to arise from economic and social concerns. There is also a great deal of scientific concern about the accurate implementation of this "species-saving" act. I was recently alerted to the economic ramifications of this Act through a local issue I have been "looking into". My frustrations mounted when I learned the USFWS gave an "OK" to developers, to bulldoze through a pristine habitat in my community. Seeing that six threatened and endangered species make their home here, I couldn’t understand why the USFWS had backed down. The answer, which seems all too common was, the USFWS simply doesn’t have enough money to effectively protect these species at this time. Consequently the majority of my paper will focus on some of the economic issues the ESA is faced with.
Question number one is "How effective has the ESA been?" This question is difficult for both scientists and government officials to answer. Most agree that the amount of time since the ESA was enacted is really too short of a time period to impartially answer this question. I will attempt to point out some of the facts. "Since the inception of the Act in 1973, 11 species of more than 1,000 listed have recovered and have been removed from the list, including the eastern states brown pelican, Utah’s Rydberg milk-vetch, and the California gray whale" (Brown, et al, 1998).
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The other side of the coin is the economic standpoint. Some individuals (Mann and Plummer, the authors of Noah’s Choice, 1995) believe that the ESA sets an unattainable goal of protecting all species from extinction at any cost. To them, the policy is labeled as dysfunctional because some extinctions can only be prevented at costs in excess of what many people are willing to spend (Reid, 1995). The Supreme Court set precedence in 1978, that Congress would "halt species extinction – whatever the cost" (Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill). The ever-mounting problem seems to be heard from the cries turning into disdain coming from these businesses and landowners.
In reality the Act does require that the government weigh social and economic considerations when establishing critical habitat. If a solid plan is developed for conserving their "kind", then the Act permits some harm to these endangered species. A cabinet-level committee is also allowed to grant exemptions, known as "the God Committee" (Reid, 1995). Conflict between environmentalists and businesses/ landowners is not a new issue. "Loggers, farmers, and other landowners long have scorned the ESA for being economically destructive" (Satchell, 1998). An example of this friction can be seen in the proposal of Tennessee’s Tellico Dam vs. the preservation of the snail darter. The construction of the dam was halted in favor of the snail darter. The ESA received tremendous flack from many people, claiming this decision was more economically destructive then socially beneficial. The fact is that the dam was a non-starter economically, and the governor of Tennessee had originally called it a waste of taxpayer’s money (Reid, 1995).
Over 50% of the money actually expended on the ESA recovery by federal and state agencies, between 1989 and 1991, was spent on the "top" ten species. These species are also referred to as megafauna. Scientists feel that people will part with their money for these species because they are easier for the majority of the population to identify with.
The following is a list of the actual breakdown of these ten species (cost in millions of dollars; Metrick and Weitzman, 1996)
Bald Eagle $31.3 Grizzly Bear $12.6
Northern Spotted Owl $26.4 Least Bell’s Vireo $12.5
Florida Scrub Jay $19.9 American Peregrine Falcon $11.6
West Indian Manatee $17.3 Florida Panther $13.6
Red-cockaded Woodpecker $15.1 Whooping Crane $10.8
Urban sprawl is another weapon that pierces biodiversity. As our population grows we are infringing heavily on our precious natural resources. Many people view this "sprawl" as being economically beneficial to society. "But is it", this is a question that Reid the author of Creature Conflicts asks. He points out that this sprawl may only be benefiting a few entrepreneurs, who move on while urban centers decay. How healthy is it for children to grow up where the largest open-space they will ever know, is the inside of a shopping mall? This concerned citizen says, "No Thank you!"
I believe the demise of biodiversity is due to the "short-sightedness" of mankind. When you tell people how much money it will cost to preserve these precious creatures, they quickly turn their backs. The common feeling appears to be that we would rather spend our "hard earned" cash on material products. Something we can really "sink our teeth into". ". The ESA was enacted to save all of the species. There is no denying that economics play a huge role in society. Regrettably, the battle between strengthening the environment and/or strengthening our pocket books seems to be fervently going on.
The truth of the matter is that we need to save these species in order for mankind to go on, as we know it. If man does not see the "big picture" very soon, we will surely lose many if not all of our natural "bonuses".
Brown, Gardner M., Jr., and J. Shogren. 1998. Economics of the Endangered Species
Act. Journal of Economic Perspectives. Vol. 12, No. 3:3-20.
Mann, C., and M. Plummer. 1995. Noah’s Choice. New York, NY: A. Knopf.
Metrick, A., and M. Weitzman. 1996. Patterns of Behavior in Endangered Species
Preservation. Land Economics., Vol. 72:1-16.
Smallwood, K.S., J. Beyea, and M.L. Morrison. 1998. Using the Best Scientific Data
For Endangered Species Conservation.
Reid, W., 1995. Creature Conflicts. Natural History. Vol. 104, No. 7:62-65.
Satchell, M., 1998. Endangered Species: Saving the eagle and the cinquefoil. U.S. News
And World Report. May 18.
Wilcove, D.S., and L.Y. Chen. 1998. Management Costs for Endangered Species.
Conservation Biology. Vol. 12, No. 6:1405-1407.