Rough Ride on the Road to Recovery

Scientists face a stressful, uphill struggle in their efforts to safeguard endangered animal populations

04-01-1992 // Lisa Drew

To a wildlife biologist, the chambers of Capitol Hill must seem a long way from the Pinaleno Mountains, home to the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel. There, in the high thin air of a peak that reaches 10,720 feet under a canopy of old-growth forest largely formed by spruce, fir and white pine, scientists can examine life on a 10,000-year-old "sky island" ecosystem left over from the last Ice Age.

So it must have been with no small sense of culture shock that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Lesley Fitzpatrick found herself in the spring of 1990 testifying before Congress on behalf of the beleaguered squirrel. She had helped study the animal in its remote habitat, and she had written reports about the creature from her office in Phoenix. Now she was in Washington, D.C., to deliver a difficult message: Under pressure from a superior, she told the lawmakers, she had written a flawed biological opinion indicating that the squirrel could survive construction of an astrophysical observatory by the University of Arizona in the heart of its habitat. She testified that she had done so with the squirrel's best interests at heart, even though, she says, "The animal was going to be adversely affected by any development alternative."

She had done what? Knowing that the squirrel could be further imperiled, Fitzpatrick had written the flawed report? And now she was talking freely about the deceit? It had all seemed clear enough at the time. Her idea when she wrote the report, she explains, was to avoid "ending up essentially shut out of the loop." In other words, she says, she chose between saying to her superiors: "If you want to do this, you people do it yourselves." Or saying: "Okay, we've got a bad situation here, how can we minimize damage?"

Fitzpatrick chose the latter alternative, building into her report several protective measures and a requirement for squirrel research to the tune of $50,000 a year. So perhaps it is not so surprising she later admitted the report was flawed. After all, public knowledge of the report (once she had done all she could from the inside, she reasoned) could only help the squirrel. Still, appearing before Congress cannot have been easy. "It's not an experience I care to repeat," she says.

For those who have since been trying to stop construction on Mount Graham with legal action, "Lesley is someone who stood up for an endangered species," says Mark Hughes of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. If she hadn't spoken up about the biological opinion, along with one of her colleagues, "we would not have known the whole thing was cooked," says Hughes.

There are certainly important lessons in Lesley Fitzpatrick's story, lessons of politics and law, money and power, and how scientists not responsible for making the ultimate decisions about controversial matters sometimes get caught in the middle. But her story is also a powerful reminder that behind the scenes of the saga of the Mount Graham red squirrel are individual people making individual decisions--just as there are in the stories of dozens of other threatened and endangered animals. These are people who liked biology as kids, got serious about it in college and, after fighting stiff competition for jobs or research funds, have found themselves at the helm of the modern Noah's ark.

Or, to use a metaphor from Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, they work in "the emergency care ward of a biotic hospital." It is a ward full of life-and-death decisions, undiagnosed cases and patients that may never get completely well. "Most species that are endangered are usually under such stress," Wilson says, "they are within striking distance of extinction."

What do we call these people who work to save beleaguered animals? Fitzpatrick, whose job involves persuading other government agencies to abide by the Endangered Species Act, uses the term "endangered species scientist"--a "convenient way to delineate function," she says. In practice, however, the semantics of the field are not so easy.

Take the case of Daniel Anderson, wildlife biology professor at the University of California at Davis, credited, with his colleagues, for helping to save California's brown pelican since the pesticide DDT came close to killing off the state's population in the late 1960s and 1970s. Anderson says of the term endangered species scientist, "I don't think there is such a thing," preferring to call himself simply an ornithologist. Yet, he says, "Endangered species do have special problems, such as limited populations, potential genetics and density problems. So there are some special things about working with endangered species."

The best title for Anderson's early role in his brown pelican work could be "detective." Biologists watched the birds, which nested on the West Coast from the Gulf of California up to Monterey, go into sudden decline in the late 1960s. At one of their most consistent breeding sites, Anacapa Island in the Santa Barbara Channel, they dropped from a usual 4,000 or even 5,000 breeding pairs to 750 in 1969. That year, only four young survived.

Anderson was part of a team of scientists that helped show that the culprit was a persistent breakdown byproduct of DDT (called DDE) from a manufacturing plant in Los Angeles. The plant was discharging the chemical into sewage that ended up in coastal waters and then in anchovies and other pelican prey. The pelicans were among the first species found to be affected by the contaminant. The East Coast's brown pelican wasn't doing too well either in many places. In Louisiana, which had named it the state bird back when it was home to 100,000 or so of the creatures, the brown pelican had completely disappeared.

Residents of Earth for millions of years, the huge-billed animals were nearly eradicated from the West Coast in a mere matter of decades. They laid eggs with shells so fragile they cracked too early, or eggs without any shells at all. In 1970, the brown pelican was officially listed as an endangered species. By 1972, Congress had banned DDT and the bird slowly started to recover.

Anderson has studied brown pelicans ever since, censusing their nests, banding them, examining the contents of their regurgitation for clues to their diet. He can tell you in detail about their mating rituals (the pouches of both male and female turn bright red during mating and nesting, probably for pair recognition), and about their hunting technique (pelicans dive from as high as 70 feet to plunge for prey). He also can tell you the likely origin of the word "pelican" (from the Greek Pelekys, or ax, probably for the bird's bill) and the history of pelican legends and symbolism (often connected to the theme of self-sacrifice--probably based on a belief in ancient times that pelican young fed on blood from their mother's breast).

What Anderson cannot tell you is when his--or any--efforts to help safeguard California's pelicans and their habitats will end. The birds' reproductive rates have been steadily rising in places like Anacapa Island, and soon they may be downlisted from endangered to threatened. "But they're not out of the woods yet," he says. "DDT pollution problems in Southern California coastal waters have not totally been eliminated," and other toxic contamination threats now have the potential to harm the birds.

As a result, Anderson will again venture out this spring as he has every other year to collect data on West Coast pelicans and their environment. Even without adequate funding, he says, he will still manage to carry on his work.

"The basic idea is really to save whole systems of organisms," he says, noting that when the pelican was found to be in danger of extinction in 1970, cormorants, gulls, marine mammals and other coastal creatures were also suffering from the effects of DDT contamination. "Saving a single species here and there really won't be very effective," he adds, "unless we can make proper decisions about preserving the biological systems associated with those species."

In Arizona, two years ago, Lesley Fitzpatrick was faced with making a proper decision regarding a report about the biological system that is home to the Mount Graham red squirrel. The two isolated Pinaleno Mountain peaks in question rise high above the desert floor, providing what University of Arizona experts say is an ideal location for astronomical research. The peaks also provide, biologists maintain, a unique environment inhabited by plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth. One researcher there, in just six weeks of field work, found ten new insect species and three new snail species.

The tiny red squirrel, which was listed as an endangered species in 1987 and which now numbers only about 400, depends on the spruce and fir forests peculiar to these mountains for its survival. When authorities at the university announced plans to build a $200 million observatory atop one of the peaks, conservationists filed suit to halt the project, claiming that it violated the Endangered Species Act. The university appealed to Congress, which responded by waiving the law's restrictions to allow the proposed project to continue.

A big factor in Congress' decision was the Fish and Wildlife Service report, saying that the selected observatory site in the Pinalenos would not jeopardize the squirrel's surer Fitzpatrick said that she wrote the opinion under pressure from her superior, the head of the agency's regional office in Albuquerque who wanted the project to go forward (and who denied the allegations).

"We did not know enough to allow for development in the near term, and we needed to know much more information on the squirrel and its habitat before a decision to site the project should have been made," Fitzpatrick later admitted. Ultimately, she testified in Washington, D.C., before Congress about the flawed report, and officials at the University of Arizona agreed to fund new research on the red squirrel and its habitat.

Last December, a federal appeals court ruled that the project could continue despite the threat it poses to the squirrel. Only time will tell how such human decisions will determine the fate of this endangered creature.

Ecologist Aldo Leopold once observed that "one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds." He might well have been discussing the rough road wildlife scientists like Lesley Fitzpatrick and Daniel Anderson must travel.

Lisa Drew is a senior editor of this magazine.

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