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Encounters with Vanishing Species

Daniel Simberloff

LISTED: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act. Joe Roman. viii + 360 pp. Harvard University Press, 2011. $27.95.

The U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) has been variously criticized for being costly and marginally effective (by Charles C. Mann and Mark L. Plummer, for example, in their 1995 book Noah’s Choice: The Future of Endangered Species) and lauded for having pulled many species back from the brink of extinction (by Brian Czech and Paul R. Krausman, for instance, in their 2001 book The Endangered Species Act: History, Conservation Biology, and Public Policy, and by the contributors to The Endangered Species Act at Thirty, a 2006 book edited by Dale C. Goble, J. Michael Scott and Frank W. Davis). The statute has been periodically under threat from Congress since the snail darter case in the 1970s, which resulted in amendments to the Act. In Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act, Joe Roman uses the ESA as a springboard for the exploration of a broad range of conservation issues. Each chapter opens with discussion of a prominent and usually controversial species listed under the Act. Roman details the disputes that have driven the controversy over that species and then shows how those disputes or similar ones reveal problems and conflicts that are pervasive in conservation worldwide.

Many famous actors appear: the snail darter, the Florida panther, the ivory-billed and red-cockaded woodpeckers, the gray wolf, the humpback whale, the manatee. So do some not as famous: the Indiana bat, the fat threeridge and purple bankclimber snails, the gopher frog. Many of the species are members of what Roman terms the “Class of ’67”—the 78 animals that the Department of the Interior declared to be threatened six years before passage of the ESA. The book’s main focus is listed animals—plants are discussed only briefly.

Roman is a conservation biologist specializing in marine species and genetics. It is remarkable that even when he is discussing very well-known species, he manages to include interesting, little-known aspects of their stories. Often he has acquired this information from the people who are working on the ground to save these species. He undertakes a staggering amount of travel to interview them, and on many occasions he accompanies them on field excursions under difficult conditions.

These stories read like dispatches from a war reporter in the midst of battle. Roman superbly conveys not only the excitement and dedication of Environmental Protection Agency employees, but also the emotional stresses they face in fighting what is sometimes demonstrably a losing battle against great odds—often in the face of the active opposition of their own employer, as sometimes occurred during the administration of George W. Bush. It is painful to hear about the annihilation of dozens of species of freshwater mollusks from a biologist who has devoted his life to trying to save them, or about the serial destruction of the few ponds suitable for the gopher frog from someone who has studied the species for 30 years. In these cases, as in most of those that Roman details, the science was more than adequate to pinpoint the problem, but the scientists could only watch helplessly as the species fell to deliberate habitat destruction in the service of societal goals—goals as large as water for a burgeoning Atlanta or as small as finding a new site for a truck-repair shop displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

The book’s many digressions encompass some issues not directly related to listed species—Lyme disease, AIDS, surgical patients viewing trees from their hospital rooms, the music on Roman’s iPod. Usually, however, what initially seems to be an extraneous excursion eventually leads to an important point relevant to the ESA. For instance, a description of six people admitted to Flushing Hospital in New York with high fevers and headaches leads to the fact that mosquitoes are spreading West Nile virus to birds, which leads to the fact that the northern house mosquito, Culex pipiens, is one of the primary vectors of West Nile to robins, house sparrows, starlings and humans, which leads to the discovery that many birds, such as egrets and herons, are not competent hosts for West Nile virus, which leads to speculation that a diverse suite of bird species might lower the frequency and transmission rate of the virus, which leads to a discussion of the dilution effect—the controversial hypothesis that increased species richness generally leads to reduced prevalence of zoonotic disease—which constitutes another rationale (albeit a tortured one) for preventing extinction.

The main theses of Listed are that all species are important to humans from a utilitarian standpoint and that what is really required to save them all is an act that targets habitat rather than species. The ESA has been pressed into service for want of an explicit habitat act, because the ESA does restrict destruction of “critical habitat” for listed species; the same habitat may house other species that are threatened but unlisted. As Roman shows in great detail for the red-cockaded woodpecker, in an account replete with telling interviews with many stakeholders, this restriction has often had the perverse effect of causing massive habitat destruction, as landowners rush to destroy features of their land before a species is listed or a piece of its habitat is designated as “critical.” (Because the red-cockaded woodpecker nests in mature long-leaf pines, thousands of the trees were felled by people trying to prevent their land from being deemed essential to the bird’s survival.) Roman explains that this problem was the basis for the Safe Harbor program, which allows qualified landowners to keep their options open without trashing their land.

A related problem with the ESA as a conservation tool is that far more species deserve listing under the ESA than receive it: Roman cites authors suggesting that the number of species that should be on the list is 10 times greater than the number actually listed. Many species are candidates for listing, but the listing agencies (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service) have insufficient resources to study all of them. In addition, pressured by groups or individuals with vested political or economic interests, the agencies often avoid listing certain species or even discourage their scientists from studying them. Roman argues cogently that a law that targets habitat would serve to save many species that are probably threatened already but are so poorly known that the threat is not recognized.

Less convincing are the various arguments Roman adduces for the utilitarian benefits of saving all species, which include old chestnuts like the possibility of finding valuable pharmaceuticals in unstudied species, and newer ones, such as the dilution effect and the claim that greater species richness leads to greater ecosystem function. Some, such as the dilution effect and the ecosystem function argument, are controversial on scientific grounds; Roman acknowledges this in the first case but not the second. In any event, three decades of giving concrete examples of human benefits from single species (for example, a marine bryozoan that produces an anticancer compound) does not appear to have stemmed the rush to destroy habitat. To Roman’s credit, however, he often provides new nuggets of information when recounting old arguments. For instance, he includes a substantial discussion of the likelihood that many of the useful pharmaceuticals thought to derive from plants and animals are actually produced by fungi and bacteria that live on them.

In sum, Listed takes an idiosyncratic approach to the ESA, using it as an entry to many issues and controversies in conservation. Roman is an engaging author, and readers will enjoy the book. They will also come away having gained a deeper understanding of the Act, along with a plethora of interesting facts about listed species.

Daniel Simberloff is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee. His research interests include ecology, invasion biology, conservation biology and biogeography.

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