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. Blue Planet: Setting Endangered Priorities

A male caribou, Rangifer tarandus
by Dan Whipple
Blue Planet: Setting Endangered Priorities
Boulder CO (UPI) Dec 28, 2004 The 30-year history of the Endangered Species Act has shown while its goals are popular, there are not enough resources to protect every species that needs saving. Choices - often subtle, yet harsh - must be made.

The beginning of the Christmas season brought the less than merry news from a U.S.-French research team that Rudolph and his reindeer friends might disappear from a large portion of their range.

The culprit in this prediction, found in the journal Conservation Biology, was global warming, naturally. The researchers found, from the archaeological record in southern France, that reindeer - called caribou in the New World - went extinct locally during two early warming periods roughly 10,000 and 130,000 years ago.

There will be a direct impact of increases in summer temperature on reindeer well-being if global warming is allowed to proceed, University of Washington archaeologist Donald Grayson, lead study author, said in a statement.

The number of southern reindeer will diminish dramatically as their range will move far to the north, and the number of reindeer in the north also will fall greatly.

Reindeer and caribou are not currently endangered or anything like it. In fact, some caribou herds in Alaska and Canada actually have been increasing their populations, despite encroachments from oil and gas activity that inspired predictions of imminent decline.

This does not mean Grayson and University of Bordeaux colleague Francoise Delpech are wrong about the eventual fate of Rudolph and his playmates, however. Their data seem strong and their conclusions well reasoned.

The future is notoriously difficult to predict but it is difficult to feel any urge to do something about a species that already is doing pretty well on its own.

On the other hand, euphoniously named condor chick No. 342 took to the air of its own free will on Nov. 23 at the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona. This brings the total number of free-flying California condors to 49.

The California condor is a magnificent bird with a wingspan reaching 10 feet in breadth. It has been known to fly as high as 20,000 feet, it can cover 140 miles a day, and can reach speeds of 85 miles an hour.

A member of the vulture family, the condor is a remnant of an earlier era, a survivor of the Pleistocene when giants walked the Earth - mammoths and sloths and saber tooths - carcasses worthy of the attention of this majestic scavenger.

The California condor also is one of the rarest animals in the world. In 1986, there was only one breeding pair left in the wild. In 1985, the total number of birds existing anywhere - zoos, research facilities and all of sunny California itself - was nine.

A recent study by Stanford biologist Cagan H. Sekercioglu found scavengers like the California condor were among the most extinction-prone of birds but he told Blue Planet: The condors are coming back. A scavenger is getting better because people are taking an interest.

So that's good news, right? Not so fast. As in the case of the reindeer, there are wheels within wheels.

A report prepared by Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs shows condor numbers have been declining since at least the beginning of the 20th century. Lead poisoning was identified in 1984 as one cause of the population decline.

Another theory, though, has it that their decline began 10,000 years ago when either climate change or prehistoric human hunters decimated their primary food supply - those Pleistocene giants. So it may be that condors simply have run the length of their evolutionary tether and human interference is prolonging the agony of a species that was on its way out anyway.

Which brings us to the Endangered Species Act. The Republican majority in the U.S. Congress is making noises about significant reforms in the ESA, which has been limping along without a permanent renewal for several years.

Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Resources, wrote: The Endangered Species Act has given us very little to cheer about. Since its inception, nearly 1,300 species have been listed as threatened or endangered. Yet, not one single species has recovered as a result of the ESA alone. The bottom line: After 30 years, the ESA has a zero percent rate of success.

Pombo and colleagues are more concerned about the impact the ESA has on landowners than they are about its success in recovering species, and they will provide a laundry list of sometimes apocryphal stories about the hostility engendered by the law.

There is no doubt that it sometimes is counterproductive. A 2003 study by the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources found landowners in the Rocky Mountains who were asked to preserve their land to protect a small rodent, the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, were about as likely to dig up the mouse's habitat to avoid regulation as they were to preserve it.

Furthermore, a majority of landowners - 56 percent - would not even allow a biological survey of their property to gather data that may lead to the mouse's protection.

Nonetheless, the ESA is one of the most popular laws ever passed. In a 2002 poll, 65 percent of Americans said humans have a moral responsibility to protect plant and animal life, 78 percent supported a strong ESA, and 63 percent said that plant and animal protection should be a priority, even in times of economic uncertainty.

What the ESA lacks is a clear sense of scientific priority. In the preamble to the act, the priorities are listed in alphabetical order. The fact is that human activity has caused a lot of the peril species are in and humans will have to decide which ones to save.

The condor program, for instance, costs the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about $250,000 a year, or roughly 2.5 times the average amount available for other listed species. The pool of funds is limited so money spent on the condor is money not spent on the slender moonwort.

There are about 1,200 species on the endangered list and another 286 are eligible for inclusion but not listed, largely because of budget constraints.

As Pombo points out, there isn't even enough money to recover the ones we currently protect.

So, revive the condor? Or make sure the reindeer stays healthy? More money would be nice, of course, but there will never be enough money for everybody.

Triage is required. What's needed first is a way to decide - a combination of science and ethics that protects species and ecosystems while respecting the rights of the people they affect. Getting these priorities in order would go a long way toward resolving the conflicts.

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