Ignite session commemorates Endangered Species Act 40th anniversary

Gray Wolf (Photo Credit: FWS)

The 98th Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America commemorated this year’s 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act with an Ignite session that brought together a diverse group of panelists to give an overview of the landmark law, its accomplishments and insights into various methods to improve species recovery.

Daniel Evans, an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow with the USDA Forest Service, took the lead in organizing  The Endangered Species Act turns 40: Lessons learned for conservation of threatened and endangered species in the United States.

Evans outlined the four main causes of species’ decline: habitat destruction/degradation, introduction of exotic/invasive species, pollution and overexploitation.  He explained that the Endangered Species Act has stymied a great deal of exploitation, which was the single biggest driver of species decline during the 18th and 19th centuries. However, he noted that the three other causes remain with habitat destruction and degradation being the biggest driver of extinction. Camille Parmesan, with the University of Texas, proposed coping with habitat fragmentation by transplanting certain endangered and threatened species to less imperiled areas.. As an example, she referenced her research on how climate change has altered the geographical range of Edith’s checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha).

Sylvia Fallon, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) land and wildlife program, gave an overview of contemporary legislative attempts at the federal level to alter enforcement of the law. She noted that while the majority of unprecedented efforts to legislatively delist species have come from Republican leaders in Congress, Senate Democrats pushed legislative language co-authored by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) to remove federal protections for gay wolves in Montana and Idaho. The incentive for pushing this measure was to give Senator Tester a legislative victory he could promote at home in hopes of bolstering his 2012 re-election efforts, which were ultimately successful. Fallon noted that while prior attempts to weaken the scope of the law from Members such as former Congressman Richard Pombo (R-CA) failed, current budget constraints are likely to motivate Members of Congress to continue to pursue legislative efforts to alter federal protections for endangered species in the name of deficit reduction.   The current political climate and pressure from Congress may also motivate the administration to delay decisions on listing certain species, said Fallon.

Mark Schwartz, of the University of California-Davis, suggested that, given current funding constraints, we need to generate alternative methods to sustain imperiled species. Schwartz also cited various factors which result in uneven funding for animal and plant species.  Among them: congressional priorities, agency decisions and the general popularity of furry and “cute” species over scaly or otherwise less appealing life forms.

Ariana Sutton-Grier, Program Analyst with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, discussed the role environmental markets can play in habitat conservation. In one example, she discussed the idea of implementing nutrient trading between point and non-point sources, using the scenario of a waste water treatment plant purchasing credits from a farmer who reduced her fertilizer use as a cheaper way of cleaning up a waterway. Sutton-Grier said that promoting credit options for environmental efforts such as oyster aquaculture or reef restoration could provide incentives for nutrient clean-up and habitat restoration.  Scientists can contribute to making environmental markets work by providing information on the ways in which climate change and other factors affect ecosystems, said Sutton-Grier.

Michael Scott, with the Idaho Cooperative Fish Unit of the University of Idaho’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, asserted that most (84 percent) threatened and endangered species are conservation reliant, meaning that they will always require some degree of management. He maintained however, that these conservation-reliant species can be delisted under certain conditions, for example when biologically defensible recovery goals for the species have been achieved and  there is a secure source of funding for conservation management practices.

During the discussion portion of the session, the panelists seem to agree that a quick trigger mechanism needs to be in place to ensure a delisted species garners automatic federal protection in the event it is found to be threatened again. Fallon said that the NRDC has repeatedly met with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to urge that such a mechanism be implemented to minimize the time it takes for a species to be formally relisted.

Slides of individual ignite presentations are available below:

Dale D. Goble, University of Idaho
The main causes of species endangerment and extinction
Daniel M. Evans, American Association for the Advancement of Science
Threatened and endangered species geography
Curtis H. Flather, USDA, Forest Service; Barry R. Noon, Colorado State University
Mark W. Schwartz, University of California, Davis
Climate change and endangered species
Camille Parmesan, University of Texas
Maile C. Neel, University of Maryland; Judy P. Che-Castaldo, National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC)
Adaptive management in species recovery planning
Haldre S. Rogers, Rice University
Arianna Sutton-Grier, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration
Sylvia Fallon, Natural Resources Defense Council