The Dilemma of Delisting Species

The bald eagle is proving what a lot of jailbirds already know: it can be a lot easier getting in than getting out.

The national symbol was supposed to have been removed from the Endangered Species List by now, but its “delisting” has been placed on hold. There doesn’t seem to be much debate over the fact that the white-headed raptor with the ferocious expression has rebounded somewhat in the years since Congress banned killing it in 1940 — long before the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973.

Outlawing the use of DDT which destroyed its eggs, and taking measures to protect its habitat helped the bald eagle rebound from its precarious level of fewer than 500 pairs in the contiguous states less than four decades ago. There are believed to be nearly 1,200 pairs today in the “Lower 48,” and outside my office window in Alaska they are more common than pigeons.

So what’s the problem here? Partly, a lack of good science.

Gauging When Enough Is Enough

Federal officials wanted to point to the eagle as a stirring example of the successful application of a popular law designed to protect critters that are dying out, largely because humans have messed up their environment. But now they say they want to think about it a bit more because if the eagle is removed from the list, how can they be sure its habitat will be protected?

Environmental groups largely oppose the delisting because they see no gain, and some threat, in any relaxation of the monitoring and protection that is required under the law for a listed species.But the chief dilemma in removing any creature from the protection of the act is deciding when enough is enough.

The Endangered Species Act “provided no criteria for deciding when a species should be listed, delisted or ‘downlisted’ from endangered to threatened,” reports a team of researchers in the current issue of American Scientist.

Addressing the broad issue of when any animal should be delisted — the scientists conclude that “no management agency has come up with a rigorous and objective definition” for when a species can be considered “recovered.”

Popularity Contest?

Leah Gerber, a wildlife ecologist at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara and lead author of the report, says current decisions on conservation management are inconsistent and too often based on the popularity of a specific species, not the level or evidence of the threat.

Whales and eagles get a lot of attention, and any attempt to remove them from the list is bound to be met with hostility. A toad that is holding up a popular construction project is likely to get a lot less support than the national bird.

“Every year, populations of plants, insects and even microbes reach the brink of extinction, virtually unnoticed,” write Gerber and Douglas P. DeMaster, director of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, and Simona Perry Roberts, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. “In the meantime, the threat of large-mammal extinctions arouses public passions, attention and, ultimately, money. It is here, at the intersection of sentimentality and scientific controversy, that conservation biologists typically face their greatest challenge.”

In other words, this is an immature science facing very mature questions in a politically-charged environment.

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