For endangered species, threats outweigh success stories
HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (AP) — If there's one success story of the 1973 Endangered Species Act that Hampton Roads can appreciate, it's the bald eagle.
The national bird was decimated in the Chesapeake Bay and disappeared entirely from the James River in the 1970s, a casualty of chemical pesticides. It was one of the first species officially listed as endangered.
Today, bald eagles are booming in the bay. But the overall trajectory of endangered species and the federal act that protects them isn't so clearcut.
There are other success stories — the Virginia northern flying squirrel, the Louisiana black bear, the whooping crane, the Arctic peregrine falcon, the humpback whale — but the number of endangered species and the number of threats to them have exploded.
Since 1975, the number of endangered species has rocketed from 137 to 1,663. Another 43 species have recovered enough to be removed from the list.
And the severity of threats to endangered species has shifted over time — pollution generally declined as a threat, for instance, while habitat disruption has increased.
These are among the findings of a six-year review of thousands of pages of Endangered Species Act documents between 1975 and 2018 by researchers from the College of William and Mary and Millersville University of Pennsylvania.
This is believed to the first evaluation of changes over time in the threats to domestic species under the act.
"We're trying to come up with signs that will help to inform the policies and how we actually manage our fauna and flora — I think that's what gets us going," said Matthias Leu, associate professor of biology at William and Mary.
"Can we provide good science to show the public that, first of all, we have a really unique law — the Endangered Species Act is one of the best that exists in the world — and we should embrace that and be proud of this and support it."
THE SIX THREATS
The study comes as species around the world are under one of the most severe threats in history — what's being called Earth's sixth Mass Extinction, driven largely by climate change.
"Scientists have just raised the alarm that we are facing an extinction like we haven't seen since the last big one — we're talking about the loss of the dinosaurs," said Collette Adkins, senior attorney and carnivore conservation director in the Minneapolis office of the Center for Biological Diversity.
"But, unlike the ones that were caused by natural factors, these (extinctions) are caused by people. By our own choices, our own greed, our overpopulation."
The study looked at six general threats to species and how they have changed.
Three of those threats have decreased — overutilization, or hunting; demographic stochasticity, or inbreeding; and pollution. The three other threats have increased: habitat modification, environmental change and the invasion of exotic or non-native species such as pythons in the Everglades and Japanese stiltgrass in Virginia.
Habitat loss continues to be the top threat. Much of that loss is occurring on private land, which tends to be highly productive and biodiverse. Leu recommends more incentives for private landowners to conserve species.
"What's really scary is we have invested millions of dollars to save habitat, but there is no decrease in that trend," said Leu. "In fact, it's slightly increasing."
POLITICS IN PLAY
The Endangered Species Act, said Adkins, is the most powerful tool available to protect at-risk wildlife. About 95% of the species it safeguards are still hanging on.
"What's really powerful about it is that, once these species have its protections, certain threats are eliminated," Adkins said. "What can be frustrating when you have a crisis like we're experiencing now is that the (act) only kicks in once those species are on the brink of extinction."
At that point, she said, it takes even greater amounts of time and money to get the species recovered again.
Adkins has written countless petitions to get species protected under the act, but anyone can make such a petition so long as they provide scientific evidence. The decision is then up to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries.
But scientific evidence isn't always enough. Species are approved for federal protection more quickly and in greater numbers under some administrations than others, depending on presidential priorities.
"There's definitely a political overlay," said Leu. "It depends on who is the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. That's an appointee from the administration.
"If the president is pro-environment, there are more species listed. And if the president is against the environment, there are fewer species listed."
According to Fish and Wildlife figures, for instance, under Ronald Reagan 256 species were added to the list, at a rate of 32 per year. Under George H.W. Bush, 235 were added, or 59 per year. Bill Clinton added 525, or 66 per year.
Listings sank under George W. Bush to 60, or just 8 per year. Then rose again under Barack Obama to 390, or 49 per year.
Some 30 months into the Donald Trump administration, listings have plummeted again to 16, or 6 per year.
A petition decision can also be overturned by a federal judge. Last year, for instance, the Montana District Court overruled the Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to delist the grizzly bear from the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, so the agency is reinstating it.
A DEEPER DIVE
Data-mining for the study was conducted under Leu and biologist Aaron Haines, associate professor at Millersville. The results recently appeared in the journal "Conservation Science and Practice" of the Society for Conservation Biology.
Student co-authors include Courtney Check, Jessica Evans, Margaret Hollingsworth, Isabel Ritrovato, Ann Marie Rydberg and Tyler Treakle.
Next, said Leu, graduate student Delaney Costante will lead a student team in a deeper dive into the data for a "finer resolution" of threats.
"Like habitat modification — there are many sublevels there," said Leu. "There could be fragmentation of forests, there could be removal of wetlands, there could be siltation of gravel beds in rivers.
"In pollution, there are pesticides, there are herbicides. There could be road runoff, saltwater issues in the winter because of icy roads."
The D.C.-based conservation group Defenders of Wildlife is using the team's data to craft legislation to protect threatened species. But Leu said he hopes for a bigger audience.
"I hope that the federal government and the state government will read this paper and start thinking about how our results can help inform their long-term strategies to conserve our flora and fauna," Leu said. "That's really the goal."
Information from: Daily Press, http://www.dailypress.com/