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Survival denied: Birds, fish, plant, pygmy rabbits lose out on endangered species protection

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A variety of rare and threatened species have been denied protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in recent weeks, including North America’s smallest rabbit and a plant that may already be extinct in the wild.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which makes the final determination on which species get protected status, ruled that some of these species deserve protection, although not as much as other, higher priority species. FWS also said it lacks the funding to add some of these species to the endangered species list at this time.

The most recently denied species is the Sacramento splittail (Pogonichthys macrolepidotus), a minnow that was listed as threatened under the ESA from 1999 to 2003 then removed after a lawsuit from the San Luis and Delta–Mendota Water Authority in California. After seven years of additional review spurred by another lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), FWS ruled on Tuesday that the splittail does not warrant ESA protection, saying “while habitat loss has occurred over the years, the existing data fail to show a significant long-term decline of the splittail.” The splittail can be one of the region’s most abundant fish, but only during flood years, which California has not experienced lately. The CBD says it will challenge this most recent decision.

Another tiny species, the pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis), was denied ESA protection on September 29. The decision affects the rabbit’s dwindling populations in California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Montana; a population in Washington State was protected under the ESA in 2003. North America’s smallest rabbit, the species weighs less than a pound in adulthood. A shrinking gene pool has left the animals prone to infection.

A few days earlier FWS acknowledged that the Gunnison sage grouse (Centrocercus minimus) deserves protection, but the service lacks the funds to do so. The sage-grouse has lost 90 percent of its natural habitat (possibly due to oil and natural gas development projects), and can now only be found in Colorado and Utah. Al Pfister, an FWS field supervisor, told Colorado’s The Watch newspaper that further steps to propose critical habitat for the sage grouse could come in fiscal year 2011 or 2012. The U.S. Agriculture and Interior departments announced a plan to protect the habitat of a related species, the greater sage grouse (C. urophasianus), in 11 western states in April.

Elsewhere, a rare plant known only by its scientific name, Agave eggersiana, which may actually be extinct in the wild, was denied protected status until funding to protect it becomes available. The plant is found only on Saint Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where most of its suitable habitat is scheduled for residential development.

In related news the FWS has won a court case which will allow it to remove bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in Arizona from the endangered species list. Bald eagles in the rest of the country were taken off the list in June 2007, although they are still protected under other federal and state laws.

Photo: Pygmy rabbit by H. Ulmschneider (U.S. Bureau of Land Management) and R. Dixon (Idaho Fish and Game). Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service





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  1. 1. dbtinc 11:23 am 10/7/2010

    you can’t save ‘em all. And as a question, are they in need of saving (and do not include the argument that they are a barometer of negative human impact). Species come and go.

    Link to this
  2. 2. goblyn27 12:13 pm 10/7/2010

    Sure, but does that mean we shouldn’t try? Its natural for a species to go extinct. More species on this planet have gone extinct than have survived long before we arrived on the scene. And our expanding into new niches and forcing out the inhabitants of those niches as well is a natural process when performed at a natural pace. But we have to keep two things in mind:

    1) Technology allows us to expand, and therefore threaten other species, at a rate not limited by natural cycles. And with that comes the responsibility to limit our own consequences to those around us to a level resembling natural expansion. We may not be able to do it, but we should still always try.

    2) If our capability to expand is a part of the natural cycle, then so is our technological capability to conserve. To embrace one aspect of this and totally ignore the other is a philosophy of arrogance and convenience. For every species that goes extinct we should still _try_ to do something about it.

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  3. 3. Treetops 7:17 pm 10/7/2010

    What this shows is that there is a general lack of understanding that everything – plants,animals, air, water, birds, flowers, insects, etc – every living breathing organic, and organism, on this planet is connected and when one is ignored, has its habitat destroyed or downgraded or diluted or polluted, everything else will suffer if it is not already suffering. It is appalling that CEOs received salaries in a day that could help save a species, that bushmeat –read chimpanzees — is still being sold or traded legally and illegally in the world, that seahorses are still be slaughtered and dried or fried for some supposed health reasons and that their territory is every day being polluted.
    It is appalling that billions of dollars are being spent on a political campaign instead of on the collective health and well being of our planet.
    Our priorities are skewed.
    And, while it is true that species "come and go" many are going as the direct result of human activity.
    New species are being discovered every day – on the ground and in the ocean.
    Will we destroy them before we find them?

    Money must be found to help our planet not degrade it any more than what has happened already

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  4. 4. kimdvm 9:17 am 10/12/2010

    It’s a philosophical debate as to whether or not we have a "responsbility" to these other species. But the reality is that technology will only take us so far. Current world human population growth will take us to the point of serious food and water problems. We are also overdue for a worldwide epidemic. I’m not saying I’m looking forward to any of that, just saying we can’t quite defy the laws of nature forever.

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  5. 5. dbtinc 9:37 am 10/12/2010

    Should be try? Absolutely but within the context of an anthropocentric approach. If we improve the environment for us these species will come along for the "ride" so to speak but to block necessary human development – no. All to often the "snail darter" episode has been used as a weapon to stop needed development.

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