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How Much is a Species Worth?

That simple question is at the heart of a complicated debate over the value of saving endangered species and the controversial law that protects them

  • Jerry Adler and Mary Hager
  • Apr 01, 1992
It is one of the greatest laws in history--a compact with the Earth in which humanity for the first time renounces the right to decide for itself which species deserve to share space on the planet. Like the Civil Rights acts, it grew out of well-deserved guilt, for by 1973 when the Endangered Species Act was passed in its present form, hundreds of U.S. species had vanished forever. This "irreplaceable loss to aesthetics, science, ecology and the national heritage" must be halted, Congress declared. Diverse species "are potential resources. They are keys to puzzles which we cannot yet solve, and may provide answers to questions which we have not yet learned to ask."

The law created a distinct class of wildlife, the members of the Endangered Species List. The singular fact about the Endangered Species Act was that an animal didn't have to earn a right to protection by benefiting the species that paid taxes and voted. It just had to be in danger of extinction. If Congress had merely codified or expanded existing protections for animals with economic or sentimental claims on human indulgence, the law would not have been such a milestone in conservation consciousness. But the beautiful, the useful and delicious were declared by Congress to be no more or less worthy of protection than the ugly, the unpalatable and possibly pestilent.

There was in 1973, as there is now, a lot of high-minded concern about the possibility that the next species to go out of existence might harbor in its genes a cure for cancer. In fact, if all of the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest were cut down to help keep the region's timber industry afloat, most of the country's 100year-old Pacific yew trees would fall with them. And thousands of Americans would lose the source of a yew-bark compound (taxol) that in the last two years has emerged as a promising treatment for ovarian and breast cancer. But as compelling as that fact is in the political arena, intellectually it represents a weak case for species protection, because it merely restates an economic argument for saving a species on more favorable terms.

The more enlightened position, said Congress, is that a species is literally priceless. The Endangered Species Act embraced the broadest concept of human dependence on other species, based on what Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson calls a "psychological affinity" for the natural systems in which humanity evolved. The law merely postulated, without demanding proof, that endangered species were of "aesthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational and scientific value to the nation and its people." It would be a sorry species that couldn't justify itself under at least one of those headings.

Of the 109 animal species on the list when the act was passed, perhaps only a dozen would have been identifiable to most laymen, and of those, several were newly promoted from the ranks of pests. A few have genuinely thrived under protection of the law, notably the American alligator, which subsequently was promoted from its classification as "endangered" to "threatened" in a portion of its range. Several, such as the peregrine falcon and brown pelican, have been pulled back from the brink of extinction, although just barely; some, like the black-footed ferret and the California condor, remain just one epidemic away from catastrophe. And a few others, such as the ivory-billed woodpecker and Santa Barbara song sparrow, were probably extinct, or nearly so, at the time they were listed.

Almost certainly, many species would be gone by now without the act. But the need for protection is no less urgent as a result. And several of the threats looming as the law faces reauthorization this year for the sixth time since 1973, are among the most insidious the animal world has faced since a man and realized he was looking at the largest piece of meat he would ever see.

Presently, for only the second or third time in the law's history, protection of a listed species--several species, in fact--is colliding with powerful economic interests. "The rhetoric against the law has a much harsher tone than ever," says National Wildlife Federation President Jay D. Hair. "It's going to be a tough fight; of the first things to get jettisoned when the economy is bad."

Even without the rhetoric, conservationists have long been concerned about the unwillingness of recent administrations and Congress to fund the act adequately. The current Endangered Species List has grown to more than 600 U.S. species, of which a little more than half are plants; fish make up the next largest category followed by birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, snails and clams, insects and arachnids, and crustaceans. But more than 3,000 species are candidates for listing; at least 600 require immediate action.

The cost of researching a listing is pegged at $60,000, so just dealing with the 600 urgent cases would cost $36 million; the entire budget for protecting endangered species last year was only about $55 million, not counting the somewhat larger amount spent by the states. And nearly a fourth of the federal budget total was spent last year studying one creature, the northern spotted owl.

An important though previously little-known component of ancient forest ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest, the owl has become a focal point of the fundamental argument--short-term economic growth vs. long-term protection of an endangered ecosystem--that has thrust the Endangered Species Act into the midst of a political firestorm. As everyone recognizes, the debate over protection of the spotted owl amounts to a debate over continued logging of old-growth public forests in the Northwest. At stake, say timber industry officials, are the livelihoods of thousands of loggers.

While the Endangered Species Act requires the designation of critical habitat for listed species, it specifies that resulting economic and other impacts be considered before any land is designated. The law also authorizes the exclusion of land from critical habitat if it is determined that the costs of including a particular area outweigh the benefits to the species in question. That flexibility in the law allowed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to drop some three million acres in 1991 from the proposed spotted owl critical habitat plan. In doing so, the agency was in effect allowing logging to continue in certain areas. But to keep the owl alive, some habitat must be protected even at the possible cost of jobs. The question is whether Americans are willing to pay that price.

A decision by Interior Department Secretary Manuel Lujan to convene a special committee to consider overriding the law's protections in regard to the owl does not auger well for the answer. The committee is known as the "God Squad," because it takes upon itself that which no human should ever be called upon to decide: the life or death of an entire species. This has happened only twice before, most notably in 1978 when the nearly completed Tellico Dam in Tennessee was stopped because it would destroy critical habitat of a tiny endangered fish, the snail darter. In that case, ironically, the "God Squad," which was created at the instigation of Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker to find a way to enable Tellico to be built, voted against the project. The dam went ahead only after Congress itself voted specifically for its completion.

Timber industry officials point out, accurately if irrelevantly, that the spotted owl is in most of its range a fairly rare bird. Its disappearance, they say, would go unnoticed. That, clearly, is not the case with another group of animals that are equally threatened--and equally controversial: the Columbia River system salmon, which inhabit the same ecosystem as the owl and are animals of vast cultural, ecological and, coincidentally, economic significance.

Commercial fishing for salmon that spawn in the Columbia and Snake rivers is a $60 million plus industry. Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus estimates that salmon fishermen would spend $125 in his state per pound of fish caught, except that there hasn't been a sport-fishing season in Idaho since 1977. Since the first major hydroelectric dam was completed at Bonneville more than 50 years ago, the annual run of salmon in the Columbia-Snake ecosystem has declined from more than 10 million fish to around 2.5 million. What is worse, only a small fraction of those represent original wild stock; the rest are hatchery fish, sometimes known (for their lack of fight and their general obtuseness) as "swimming hot dogs."

The astonishing thing is that any wild fish make the journey at all. When the rivers ran free, helped by spring melts, salmon made a 900-mile trip from the Snake's headwaters to the mouth of the Columbia in about three weeks. Today that trip is interrupted by eight major dams, behind which water pounds up in lakes where parasites and predators lurk.

As the fish pass through the dams themselves, the turbine blades take another heavy toll. Then, after three or four years of dodging fishermen in the Pacific, the salmon reverse the journey, and with luck make it up "fish ladders"--a series of stepped pools providing portage around the dams--to their spawning grounds. That, of course, is assuming that in the meantime the area hasn't been logged up to the banks and covered in silt. The Snake River sockeye has been battling these odds for decades, and last year exactly four of the fish made it all the way upriver. Only one of them was a female.

If that isn't endangered, what is? The National Marine Fisheries Service apparently agrees. Last November, it designated the Snake River sockeye salmon "endangered." It also proposed listing two runs of Snake River chinook (fall and spring/ summer) as "threatened." This begs the question of what can be done to save the fish, short of blowing up dams.

Over the years a variety of technical fixes have been proposed, and some actually tried, such as barging the fry downstream past the dams--a procedure with a mortality rate, says Andrus aide Scott Peyron, of between 90 and 99 percent. A variation is to capture fry in submerged nets and tow the nets downriver.

Most environmentalists, though, think the plan with the best chance of success will be some variation of one proposed last year by Andrus. It calls for essentially opening up the gates on four Snake River dams just above the confluence with the Columbia for about two months each spring. The river would return for those weeks to approximately its natural contours and levels, affording unimpeded passage to the fry heading downriver. (The fish would still have to get past four dams on the lower Columbia, but Andrus contends that the upper four account for the majority of the mortality.)

The implications of such a relatively simple adjustment in the water-driven economies of this part of the country are staggering. The power industry, which regards water above sea level as money in the bank, opposes turning off the turbines for two months; to give an idea of the money at stake, Andrus' office touts a study showing that the lost power sales would amount "only" to $100 million.

The big grain farmers and shippers oppose the plan because it would shut barge traffic on the river for that period, forcing them to use railroads instead. Farmers that draw irrigation water from the reservoirs behind the dams would have to extend their intake pipes to reach the river, and even that would cost several million dollars. In the end, say researchers Jeffrey Hyman and Kris Wernstedt, who studied the issue for Resources for the Future, "Political forces will decide what to protect and how to protect it."

The owl and the salmon controversies both reflect broader issues that will figure in the Congressional debate over the act this year. Opponents of the law, including such misleadingly named groups as the National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition, are planning to turn the spotted owl into a symbol of bleeding-heart excesses. One "reform" they seek is to give economic considerations more weight in deciding if a species merits inclusion on the list. That approach was tried during the Reagan Administration, which led Congress in 1982 to reaffirm that the only considerations that matter in a species listing are scientific.

Critics often lose sight of the fact that the law provides accommodations of economic and other concerns by allowing special regulations to be issued for particular species. Such was the case two years ago in the heated controversy over turtle excluder devices, which are required in shrimp fishing nets to prevent drowning of threatened and endangered sea turtles. The National Academy of Sciences had concluded that the best way to protect the turtles is to ban all shrimping in critical areas. "But that was neither a realistic nor desirable option," says National Wildlife Federation attorney Robert Irvin. "The regulations requiring the excluder devices offered a balanced solution to a complex situation."

A more problematic area in regard to the law's reauthorization concerns protection for subspecies and geographic populations. The spotted owl of the Northwest is actually the northern spotted owl; there are at least two other races of spotted owls, the California and the Mexican. And the species as a whole is closely related to the barred owl, which inhabits the same ecological niche east of the Rockies.

Lujan has suggested genetic testing as a way to settle whether the endangered owls are truly unique, but it is not clear he has an open mind on the subject. When the question arose of protecting a subspecies of red squirrel, which was threatened by plans for a new telescope on Arizona's Mount Graham, Lujan remarked that he couldn't tell the difference between a brown squirrel and a red one. The implication: that one kind of squirrel should be enough for everyone else as well.

The key issue, however--the one that goes to the very heart of what the Endangered Species Act means--concerns habitat protection. Lujan contends that the law has been misapplied, that what was meant as a "shield" for endangered animals has become a "sword" to use against activities that environmentalists don't like for other reasons. This is a serious accusation, and it may in some cases be true. One possible response is that clear-cutting virgin forests is irresponsible public policy and ethically indefensible, and that people are entitled to use any means within the law to stop it. Another response is that Lujan simply hasn't paid attention to the language of the act, which makes it clear that Congress intended not just to protect species per se, but to conserve "the ecosystem upon which endangered and threatened species depend." The species-by-species listing process has tended to obscure that point.

As the law comes up for reauthorization, some environmental groups would like to add provisions for a broader "ecosystem" listing, protecting whole habitats and all the species within them. But they are troubled by the fact that Lujan says he wants the same thing. Environmentalists fear an Administration version of "ecosystem protection" would involve setting aside small "core" habitats for protection and opening the land all around to intensive development. National parks do that already, and more parks would be nice, but not at the expense of destroying critical habitat in the West.

The Endangered Species Act as currently written lets wildlife draw the line on protection, not a bureaucrat. And that's the reason for conflicts: Wildlife knows no boundaries of map and plot, does not distinguish between land that no one wants and prime second-home sites, and inhabits the same areas it has for millennia without regard for the needs of developers.

That is what Congress recognized in creating the Endangered Species Act: That if we want wildlife, we have to take it on its own terms, give it land and water it needs and get out of its way. And that is why one has to believe in the end the act will survive all efforts to weaken or modify it. Because it is one of the greatest laws in history.

New York writer Jerry Adler and Washington, D.C., correspondent Mary Hager are on the staff of Newsweek.

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