By Alan Boyle
Four decades after going into effect, the legislation that protects some of Mother Nature's most vulnerable creatures is facing an existential crisis.
Since the Endangered Species Act became law, it's generated its share of success stories (such as the bald eagle's resurgence) and less impressive case studies (such as the continuing decline of the Northern spotted owl). This year's anniversary is generating a lot of talk about the Endangered Species Act's past — and its future.
"There are a lot of pundits out there who will tell you that it has either been a disaster or a huge success," Peter Alagona, a professor of environmental history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, told Smithsonian magazine. "The truth is that it has really been a mixed bag to date, and 'to date' is a really short time. For species that took centuries to decline, 40 years is probably not enough time to recover."
Alagona takes an in-depth look at species protection in a book titled "After the Grizzly," and says the law has done "a really good job" of preventing extinctions. "But it's done a really poor job promoting the recovery of species that are on the list," he said.
What works, what doesn't
The problem is that bringing an endangered species back to a sustainable population often requires more than just restricting human activities in a defined geographical area. Sometimes the solution springs from other factors: The growth of bald eagle populations, for instance, arguably had more to do with the 1972 ban on DDT's agricultural use than with the Endangered Species Act. Even though the eagles were taken off the endangered list in 2007, they're still protected under different laws.
The law's protections aren't always enough to address the bigger problems facing a species and its habitat. Take the Northern spotted owl: Limits on logging in the threatened species' Pacific Northwest forest habitat generated a huge outcry in the 1990s, but even though the protections took effect, the spotted owl population is continuing to decline — mostly due to encroachment by a more aggressive species, the barred owl.
"The conservationists who got into this in the first place got into it because they wanted to save owls, and now they’re being faced with the idea of shooting one owl to protect another," Alagona said. More....