Obama Administration Proposing Worrisome Change In Endangered Species Act

The Obama administration is proposing a change in the language of the Endangered Species Act that is worrisome to some conservation groups concerned that it could significantly diminish the preservation of species.

At issue is whether the "historic" range of a species should be considered when evaluating its need for protection under the act. In a draft of the policy change, the administration says that's not important.

Some have questioned whether lost historical range may constitute a significant portion of the range of a species, such that the Services must list the species rangewide because of the extirpation in that portion of the historical range. We conclude that while loss of historical range must be considered in evaluating the current status of the species, lost historical range cannot be a significant portion of the range. In other words, we cannot base a determination to list a species on the status of the species in lost historical range.
At the Center for Biological Diversity, officials maintain that alternation would carry far-reaching impacts.

“Under the policy proposed today, a species could be absolutely gone or close to vanishing almost everywhere it’s always lived — but not qualify for protection because it can still be called secure on one tiny patch of land,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center. “The policy absolutely undermines the spirit of the Endangered Species Act and will be a recipe for extinction of our native wildlife if it’s finalized — a loophole that’s really a black hole. It will allow for massive species decline and habitat destruction.”

According to the Center, "the draft policy retains a key aspect of a similar Bush-era policy adopted in 2007, which also argued that loss of historic range need not be considered when determining if a species is endangered in a significant portion of its range. The approach has been criticized by scientists as a 'shifting baseline,' whereby the history of species is ignored."

A study published by the Center in the international journal Conservation Biology cited the Colorado River cutthroat trout as a case in point: The trout was denied protection even though U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials acknowledged it has been lost in 87 percent of its historic range, including the biggest and best streams, and continues to face many threats.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has long been criticized for only protecting species on the very brink of extinction, which makes recovery a difficult uphill slog,” said Mr. Greenwald in a press statement. “This policy would actually codify that approach, essentially saying: 'Let’s only protect these creatures when they’re in as desperate a state as possible.'”

The policy does reverse one aspect of the Bush administration policy that limited Endangered Species Act protections only to places where species were considered endangered, rather than their entire range. The policy was applied to several species, including the gray wolf and Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, but was overturned by the courts.

But in a classic example of government doublespeak, the Obama administration's draft policy says that "a species being endangered in a significant portion of range provides an independent basis for protection," the Center's release said. "It then defines the phrase to mean that the species must be at risk in all of its range. As with the 'historic range' dodge, this will allow the agency to ignore species loss in significant areas and not provide protection. Fish and Wildlife did just this in a recent decision to deny protection to cactus ferruginous pygmy owls, even though the animal is at risk of being lost in the entirety of the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mexico."

“Future generations will look back at the mass extinctions of our time with nothing but sadness and regret,” said Mr. Greenwald. “Yet the agencies the American people trust to prevent these irreversible extinctions constantly seek to limit their own ability to stop species dying off. It’s both tragic and absurd.”


We need to protect endangered species, to not make it difficult for them to thrive.

Wanna bet there's some special interest with big money hidden behind this? Maybe we voters need to make all politicians endangered species every couple of years.

Far reaching results not often considered, Lee. This goes back to our previous conversation. You think out of work citizens or endangered small business's (or large) are going to prefer to vote for an often contrived straw specie rather than their own endangered status? There's a reality out there and better to embrace it and deal with it "reasonably."


Why does this have to be an either/or? Given all the scientific evidence that points to a mass extinction of plants and animals currently underway, I wonder if there's a third way to deal reasonably.

Being reasonable is the third way, Justinh. It often comes with humbling :). The opposite of stridency.

I think we've just about reached the point where, with all the electronic communication screaming around, all the TV commercial soundbites, all the "expert" pundits punditing, and politics in general there is simply no one in the whole wide world who really knows what reality is.

But we all have strong opinions.

Maybe the entire world is just one big mass hallucination.

Oh, actually, there are quite a few people that know reality. They are the ones that aren't consumed by their own strong opinions or attaching themselves to devisive political B.S., trying to play by the ever changing rules that don't favor them. How would it be if the different user groups of our National Parks used demeaning rhetoric toward to destroy every other user group in the Parks. It's done on a smaller scale but it's all bad wherever it's used and we all lose something in the battle. Just don't fall into that category is my suggestion. Also, many groups know it's more of a moneymaker to be strident rather than being reasonable. Follow the money and you'll be surprised.

Thanks for this excellent article. In Vermont we are dealing with the local extinction of several species of bats that have wintered in Vermont for as long as anyone knows. In the past 4 years 99% of the bats have died from White Nose Syndrome. The species are still found in some other regions of the country so are not listed nationally as endangered, but as of this year are now listed by the state as endangered. The fungus that causes WNS was first discovered in our area but will eventually spread. If we wait until the bats are mostly gone everywhere in the country before getting to work to stop the spread of the fungus, it will be too late. This case, alone, illustrates why local extirpation must be taken very seriously. It is already an uphill battle to save this species (and the negative ecosystem consequences are already being felt), but if we wait longer it will be impossible. And what if the cause was habitat loss instead of a disease? Then how do we wait and fix it later?

Seems reasonable:). Am aware of the Bat issues and the bad rap they typically get. I like them a lot in my area and don't believe the fungus has reached here.

Basically that is the status quo. A simple loss of habitat never was enough for species to be listed anyway. It always needed an additional threat to the remaining populations. And don't get this wrong, a few isolated populations or just one habitat left is a threat, if one local or regional issue can wipe out the species.
In the end I don't see much difference and I certainly don't expect any mass extinction. In fact we are doing quite well wit regard to extinctions, does anyone remembers any species getting extinct over the last 50 years on american soil? No? Why? Maybe because no species got extinct? Of course, habitat fragmentation does continue and it is a thread to long term survival. But if the existance of a species really get's threatened, the law works.
The endangered species act was never intended to protect the whole habitat of dwindling species. It was, is and will be an intervention of last resort. We need to look for other tools to protect ecosystems from degradation.

Here's a link to a list of species that have gone extinct on American soil in the last 50 years: http://www.currentresults.com/Endangered-Animals/North-America/recently-extinct-animals.php

As for global mass extinction, here's a link to a list of articles that include The National Academy of Sciences, NY Times, Nat Geo, etc. : http://www.well.com/~davidu/extinction.html