In the past three decades very few endangered species have been restored toviable populations.
The black footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) was believed tobe the most endangered mammal in the united states. It is a small mink sizedcarnivore of the Great plains and intermountain basins The ferrets appear to beobligatory predators on the prairie dogs and once occupied a range essentiallyidentical to that of the prairie dogs. They prey on them and also use theirburrows for shelter and nesting. The prairie dogs are considered agriculturalpests and competitors with livestock since white settlement first began in theAmerican west. Large scale rodent control programs were implemented by the stateand federal governments. They drastically reduced the population of prairie dogs(and other species related to the prairie dog ecosystem) through trapping,gassing and poisoning.
These poisoning programs were considered a major cause ofthe ferret’s demise. But, the main cause was the loss of the ferret’s preybase and appropriate habitat. Their remaining habitat was fragmented thusleaving the ferret population vulnerable to extinction from various causesincluding inability to find mates, inbreeding depression, environmental events,and disease of ferrets and their prey. The ferrets were believed to be extinctin 1974, but in 1981 a ferret was discovered in Meeteetsee, Wyoming when a ranchdog killed an unusual animal eating from its food dish and the rancher took thecarcass to a knowledgeable taxidermist. This was viewed as a rare chance torecover the species.
In 1985, a catastrophic disease struck the small ferretpopulation, and most remaining animals were taken into captivity. Captivebreeding was initiated, and reintroduction into the wild from the captivepopulation began in 1991. The ferret is just one of more than 900 species listedunder the Endangered Species act as either threatened or endangered. Over threethousand more species wait on a list of candidates for such status, but in the1980s over thirty-four species went extinct while on the waiting list (Cohn,1993).
Is the ferret program representative of the national effort to recoverspecies? Main body: United States policy on endangered species, including theferret and hundreds of other plants and animals, is codified in the 1973Endangered Species act (ESA ,as amended, U. S. Congress 1983, Bean 1991) . Thispiece of legislation sets a national goal the prevention of any furtherextinction and the restoration of species currently threatened with extinction.
The ESA is a highly popular piece of legislature because no one would advocatethe killing of an entire species. But the simple goal of saving a species cloaksa complicated process. The ferret case is a good illustration of how the ESA isactually outfitted, how and state officials and others tackle the complex workof restoring species, and how problems come about in nearly all recovery plans. In short, the ferret rescue is a measure of how the ESA really works.
Afterfinding the small population in Wyoming, in 1981, one might expect a well ledand smoothly coordinated recovery effort to have been quickly organized to savea species that had been recognized as America’s most endangered mammal. Manyuniversities, conservation organizations, state and federal agencies, and localpeople were willing to help. Collectively they command substantial resources,not only in terms of money: national and international expertise on populationgenetics and small population management, experienced field researchers, testedbreeding facilities, and support staffs from major zoos. All that was needed forthe ferrets to be restored swiftly, professionally, and efficiently was a meansto bring the talent together in a productive well organized program. Under theESA, the task of organizing recovery efforts is the responsibility of thefederal government acting through the U. S.
Fish and Wildlife Service and theU. S. National Marine Fisheries Service. Federal officials had numerous optionsopen to them at the start of the ferret program, one of which was to functionlike administrators of a large hospital, pulling together a world-classprofessional team, supporting the necessary work with adequate funding,equipment and facilities, and relying on the team’s judgment to bring aboutthe patient’s recovery.
But this model was not selected. The ferret programwas organized and operated very differently. Section 6 of the ESA requires thatstates be involved to the “maximum extent practicable. ” Early in 1982,the federal government turned the main responsibility for ferret restorationover to the state of Wyoming. Almost immediately, problems began to emerge. Through a formal resolution, the American Society of mammologists (1986:786)urged “the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wyoming Fish and Game department,and other state wildlife departments, and numerous and numerous interestedconservation groups to make broader recovery efforts” than those exhibitedby the current program.
Miller, Reading, and Forest (Miller et al. 1996:208)identify the FWS as the national agent responsible for maintaining professionalrestoration programs. “It is our contention,” they write, “thatRegion 6, of the FWS, failed to make the ferret recovery a national program. Itmay have been easiest for Region 6 to acuiesence to Wyoming’s agenda in theshort term, but the strategy has probably impaired the recovery in the long run. People, or agencies, in a position to improve conservation should not simplythrow money at a problem, but invest in time and attention as well. ” TheWyoming Game and Fish department was interested in doing whatever was necessaryto insure that the ferrets be returned to the wild in Wyoming first, whether ornot Wyoming was the best place to introduce them.
There could have been sites inother states which were better suited for ferret reintroduction, but thejealousy of the Wyoming Game and Fish department prevents them from consideringsuch an alternative. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (1990) concluded thatstate-level concerns had taken precedence over national recovery issues. TheWilderness Society concluded that of the 495 species listed in 1988, only about16 (3. 2 percent) are recovering. Another 18 listed species (3.
6 percent) mayhave already been extinct. This is a record that fails to demonstrate the basicpromises of the act. The General Accounting Office (1992) added that of sixteenspecies removed from the list, five were recovered, seven were extinct, and fourwere reclassified because of misinformation. Two federal audits of the ESAimplementation have been conducted. Reviews of the FWS endangered speciesprogram and found that the federal government did not maintain centralizedinformation needed to determine how well the overall program was operating. Required recovery plans have not been developed and approved for many species.
In 16 recovery plans that were investigated in depth, nearly half of the taskslisted had not been undertaken even though the plans had been approved, onaverage, more than four years earlier. Fws officials attributed this to shortageof funds, “the inspector general of the Interior department has lambastedhis federal colleagues at the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, charging that theymay be sending species to extinction” (Holden1990). Conclusion: Thedestruction of other life forms because of the actions of people is a problemwith profound biological, ecological, economic, and ethical dimensions.
We mustassume that a healthy biosphere is in the common interest of humanity. Appreciation of the fundamental importance and far-sightedness of the EndangeredSpecies Act and other biodiversity protection policies has grown over the lasttwo decades, but that has neither prevented nor appreciably slowed theextinction crisis. Around the globe, the problem of extinction is extreme andgrowing, with perhaps scores of species disappearing everyday. The ESA ispotentially a powerful tool to better the extinction crisis, and in many wayshas served as a global model.
But despite its value both substantively andsymbolically, there are problems with it, as both the biological and politicaltrends of the past years attest. Implementation has fallen short of promise. Protecting species under the ESA is a long , complex process. Once species arerecognized as deserving of protection and are listed, conservation programs mustbe designed, approved, and then implemented. Almost four thousand species in theUnited States now wait to be afforded the basic protections of the ESA; severalhundred, many of them plants may already be extinct.
Beyond the listing process,there are innumerable steps, activities and processes that make up the ESAimplementation. The extinction problem in the U. S. and the world is apparentlygrowing faster than practical policy responses can be generated to stop it. Theblack footed ferret was a good example for showing how there are problems withthe conservation process and limitations of conventional approaches.
The ferretrestoration program was fraught with problems, which has added to its notorietyin the public eye and the scientific and conservation communities. If we are toimprove the policy-making process for conserving biodiversity, we mustacknowledge the problem openly, honestly, and realistically. We must turn ourknowledge of saving species and take turn it into more effective, more efficientconservation gains. In other words, we must reconstruct the endangered speciesrecovery process. BibliographyAmerican Society of Mammologists.
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GAO/RCED 89-5. GPO, Washington. Holden, C. 1990. Ecology hero in the interior department.
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