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Scientists want politics kept out of endangered species decisions

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

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Some 1,293 scientists sent a letter (pdf) this week to each and every U.S. senator urging them not to support any endangered species legislation that is based on politics rather than science.

“As scientists with expertise in biological systems,” the letter reads, “we are writing to urge you to vote against any legislation that would undercut the use of best available science as the basis for adding or removing any particular species from the protection of the Endangered Species Act.”

The letter, sent under the aegis of the Union of Concerned Scientists, follows recent political moves to remove the gray wolf (Canis lupis) from the endangered species list as well as other similar actions making their way through the legislative process. The document was signed by scientists from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and two U.S. territories.

“If any one species is taken off the endangered species list by Congress, then all of the species on the list become vulnerable to future political attacks,” said wildlife ecologist Franz Camenzind, one of the signatories, in a prepared statement. “This would send the implementation of the Endangered Species Act into chaos, creating uncertainty both for species and for the communities and businesses around them.”

Other attempts to legislate endangered species based on political decisions include a bill from Rep. Joe Baca (D–Calif.) that would limit Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection to 15 years, a period in which species could either recover or on its expiration no longer be safeguarded; legislation from Rep. Don Young (R–Alaska) to remove polar bears from the ESA; and spending bills in both houses of Congress to end water-use restrictions put in place to protect endangered species in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta.

Of course, even outside of the legislative branch, the best scientific information can’t always save endangered species from sociopolitical realities. The science included in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent review of the Mount Charleston blue butterfly (Icaricia shasta) (pdf) is detailed and precise, but the species was denied ESA protection because there are no funds available. The Berry Cave salamander (Gyrinophilus gulolineatus) was denied coverage this month for similar reasons. Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives has proposed substantial or total cuts to a number of conservation programs including the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, state and wildlife grants, and the Clean Water Act—all of which directly or indirectly impact threatened species.

Preserving wildlife and nature does not come cheap, but as the scientists’ letter points out, “Biological diversity provides food, fiber, medicines, clean water and myriad other ecosystem products and services on which we depend every day. To undermine the careful and thoughtful scientific process that determines whether a species is endangered or recovered would jeopardize not only the species in question and the continued success of the Endangered Species Act, but the very foundation of the ecosystems that sustain us all.”


Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. 1. laurenra7 5:58 pm 04/1/2011

    Does anyone else see the irony in the Union of Concerned Scientists, a political organization whose members are mostly non-scientists, urging Congress to exclude politics from decision-making in one breath and in the next declaring that removing the "endangered species" designation from one animal would be bad for all…even though there is no "science" to justify that position?

    Very funny…and symptomatic of the mindset that pervades government: once something is decreed, it remains enshrined eternally. So much for a "living" Constitution.

    I have news for you Union of Concerned Non-Scientists, the entire process of selecting animals for the endangered species list is political. Why wolves and not, say, a local sucker fish that is found no where else on the planet? Is there a scientific justification for one over the other? Does one objectively have more value than the other? Not at all. It’s simply based on the loudest hue and cry from the outraged villagers.

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  2. 2. robert schmidt 9:52 pm 04/3/2011

    "Does anyone else see the irony" it seems as ironic to me as people who want peace taking arms against a hostile invader. One doesn’t always get to chose the forum to resolve a conflict.  

    "whose members are mostly non-scientists whose members are mostly non-scientists," I don’t think you need to be a scientist to appreciate that issues which require scientific assessment should not be decided based on their political relevance only, which is often the case. And as you pointed out, it is much easier for politicians to make a case for inclusion on the endangered species list if the species in question has a good public image. I think if scientists had it their way, inclusion would be based entirely on scientific evidence, but they are unfortunately forced to play the political game because that is where these decisions are currently being made.  

    "and in the next declaring that removing the "endangered species" designation from one animal would be bad for all", by allowing politics to determine if a species should be removed from the list, it sets a precedent that can be used to remove any politically inconvenient species from the list. 

    "It’s simply based on the loudest hue and cry from the outraged villagers." I think you are making an appeal to ridicule implying that inclusion on the endangered species list is only the result of public appeal. A considerable amount of research is done on both sides of the issue before any species is added to the list. And you seem to making a "perfect solution" fallacy, that the existing system isn’t perfect therefore any attempt to improve it should be dismissed as just another part of an imperfect system. How do you expect things to get better if not by incremental improvement? Your own arguments seem to actually support the position of the UCS as you seem to be complaining that the system, as it is, is too political. What would your solution to the problem be since you find this one so laughable?

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  3. 3. ennui 2:30 am 04/5/2011

    Fat chance. If a politician can make a buck by opposing it, he will.

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  4. 4. nmleon 8:46 pm 04/6/2011

    Too often in the past, the attempt to get sub-species listed has been totally political and not backed by scientific fact. The actual listing of a species or subspecies and the attendant regulation is ALWAYS a political decision whether it’s supported by valid science or not. Indeed how could it be otherwise. We live in a Democratic Republic, not a Scientocracy.

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