So-called charismatic megafauna have traditionally captured the attention of the public, becoming the poster children for zoos, aquariums and conservation organizations. This public affection for attractive animals has also translated into legislation: Cuddly and economically important animals get more money under the Endangered Species Act, regardless of their level of jeopardy.
As a great front-page article in The Washington Post points out, of the about 1,300 species on the list, only 15 are considered recovered, 10 of which are “animals that would look good on a T-shirt”. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has apparently said that they are making an effort to curtail this discrimination, and will instead allocate funds to species most at risk and/or the center of legal disputes.
The article points out the controversial story of the Delta smelt, a small endangered fish that lives in the San Francisco Bay and a river delta feeding into it. Federal legislation protecting the fish prevents this drought-plagued area from using water from the river’s outlet in order to protect the fish. Environmentalists say the commercially non-viable fish is a bioindicator of the river’s health; local lawmakers, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), have tried to block the legislation.
Ecologists often have the good of an ecosystem at heart, and we believe, based on science, that evolution has produced food webs and community structure that are interconnected, making each member crucial to the health of an ecosystem. But can we always say that protecting a rare species is worth the cost it creates to humans? Could we let the Delta smelt go if it meant, as some report, the livelihood of 40 percent of farmers in California’s central valley?