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May 12, 1998

Can't We All Just Get Along?

by Woody Justice

Homo Sapiens isn't the only species on the planet; we just act like it. Although we cannot grasp all the intricacies and interactions of the Web of Life, we blithely doom other earthlings to nonexistence. In doing so we damn ourselves both spiritually, as any discounting of life does, and ecologically, as repercussions yet-to-be-seen will result.

It remains a somewhat vague and unacknowledged phenomenon among lay-people that everything evolved in concert with everything else. The world is the way it is because of balanced competition among species; that is a Law of Nature, just as immutable as gravity. When species disappear it is an indication that the habitat is changing. While natural extinctions have always taken place, the rate was much slower than we are seeing now due to anthropogenic activity. Also, when natural selection bids adieu to an organism there is always another species that fulfills a similar role in the environment. Everything has a niche, and all things must give back as well as take.

Humans expect their actions to be exempt from the equation. Our species is the ultimate reason Earth exists. To be the center of the Universe means that we can undertake anything, and no manipulation is beyond our abilities. Besides, what is the use of some tiny fish or invertebrates when jobs (and profits) are at stake?

In settling the Wilderness, the conventional wisdom was that fewer wolves meant more deer. The results of such intensive management efforts were denuded vegetation and the eventual starvation of deer herds as their populations expanded without check. Aldo Leopold related the idea this way: "Just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades."

Mountain lions and bears were nearly exterminated in order to make the West safe for civilization. This led to a larger population of coyotes and expensive (and ultimately futile) government programs assigned to wipe out with bullets, traps and poison the opportunists that naturally grew to fill the void. The female coyote, for instance, when reduced in number yet enjoying abundant prey, will become fertile at a younger age and will produce larger and more frequent litters. (As an unplanned side effect of poisoned bait, eagles and other large birds of prey ate from the carcasses and died in large numbers.) Removing the competitors of cows and sheep from rangelands left us polluted streams, dustbowls, non-native vegetation, and disappearing species that once helped maintain healthy ecosystems. Poisoning the pests of our monoculture crops thoroughly eliminates their predators, the beneficial species, while promoting natural selection: survival of resistant individuals that will pass their genes on to produce invincible populations of pests.

While much of the damage was done with premeditation, a larger cause of this mass extinction we are bringing on the planet is just an incidental outcome from our avarice and self- gratification. Habitat loss -- outright destruction and "mere" modification -- is the major contributor to loss of species richness and diversity. Government policies that give away natural resources at a loss encourage rape of the Wilderness and deter conservation and re-use. Urban dwellers abandon the cities and take over natural lands, making the areas unsuitable and driving native inhabitants away. Remaining waterfront acreage is dwindling, but development continues until displaced species have no place left in which to take refuge. Undisturbed back-country falls to development of resorts and summer homes that remain vacant five days out of seven. A too-large leisure class, with more money than sense, finds the delay for tee-times intolerable, so another diverse ecosystem is turned into a biological desert for aimless rounds of flogging a small white ball around an artificial landscape.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) remains the law but a weak one with few successes compared to the losses. Dependent on a politically-charged process, and with limited funding from a tight-fisted Congress, thousands of species under pressure await hearings to determine their listing. If they survive the wait, survival is still not guaranteed, because more species become "delisted" through their final disappearance than through successful recovery. Even if listed, private property rights allow "incidental takings" of the species: killing or driving away members of the population as an unintended consequence of the use or development of the property. At most, the US Fish & Wildlife Service requires a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) from the "taker" that spells out measures to reduce the impact. In fact, the HCP is often no more than lip-service involving voluntary sign-posting and a minor donation for further studies. The listed species suffer just the same. As long as funding is insufficient to purchase habitat outright -- which is usually appraised at an outrageous market-value because of its scarcity or desirability for development -- government agencies are forced to play the permit game that allows destructive plans to proceed.

The attractive megafauna -- cute or photogenic larger species -- that are the beneficiaries of public opinion still face reintroduction limits. The Wilderness areas where wolves and grizzlies once roamed are smaller, fragmented and human-encroached. Plans to reintroduce them back into their traditional ranges are undermined by labeling the subjects "experimental non-essential populations." This means that their habitat will be managed primarily for other uses (mining, logging, ranching, development), which will either drive the relocated individuals away or create confrontations with humans, and in the case of such conflicts the endangered species will be granted no protection. Worse yet, smaller animals, insects and obscure plants face a slimmer chance of getting protection, because positive imagery plays such an important part of the process.

Once true protective measures are in place, there is still the free-trade threat. The World Trade Organization recently ruled that the US has no right to restrict imports of shrimp from countries that do not take steps to protect endangered sea turtles while trawling. American shrimpers used that very argument -- unregulated competition from overseas -- in an unsuccessful fight against turtle-excluders, and now they face additional restrictions with by-catch reduction devices. It is difficult to get people to support measures for the intangible betterment of the environment when they are faced with such disparity.

As if the ESA were some omnipotent force that brings progress to a screeching halt, the law itself is constantly under attack by politicians beholden to corporate interests. During the last Republican Administration exempting some practices and habitats from ESA requirements was the duty of the "God Squad," a Cabinet-level panel that ignored biological and scientific guidelines and substituted narrow human concerns. Now in the Senate, S.1180, the ESA Reauthorization Bill introduced by Dirk Kempthorne (R-ID) [is it just coincidence that his tag is "rid" as in rid the planet of biodiversity?], would weaken the ESA by changing the focus to short-term survival instead of species recovery, limit scientific data and biological considerations in the decision process, and lessen further the usefulness of HCPs.

The ESA isn't some eco-hippy's dream of making plants and animals more important than people. It serves vital human needs by considering long-term ecosystem health and genetic resources as yet undiscovered. It has effectively restored some threatened species -- 29 according to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt -- to viability so that they no longer need protection. The conflicts that have no suitable compromise are extremely rare, about 1 in 1,000. (Name one besides the Northern Spotted Owl versus unlimited old-growth logging.) The ESA is flexible: It already requires that critical habitat designations be based in part on economic considerations, and exemptions for some projects are allowed. The major drawback that most environmental advocates see with the ESA is an underfunded budget for the USFWS to carry out the Act's intent. As the rate of species extinction increases, the ESA deserves a stronger reauthorization.

Consider that extinction is forever; it means a life-form that exists nowhere else will never be again. Regardless of the motive behind loss of species, premeditated or spontaneous, it seems that if an organism has no material value measurable in hard currency, well, that's just too bad for it -- as if Darwin's theory depended on economic fitness to drive natural selection.

So it is really unnatural selection as Humankind plays God, deciding what lives and what dies. And if that isn't the pinnacle of egotism and conceit, can someone please explain what is?

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL