Yesterday, the Department of Interior announced their intention to propose listing 45 plants, two birds and one insect that are all endemic to the Hawaiian island of Kauai to the Endangered Species List. Their proposal will also include designation of critical habitat that reportedly encompasses all but one of these species (the latter being left out over concerns of alerting poachers as to where to find it).
This decade has seen criminally few species offered the protection of the Endangered Species Act, thus a proposal to list so many at once seems on one level to be a great thing. I am glad that they are. However, from listening in to yesterday's media call and reading the press materials, I have many remaining questions about this proposal. So here is an attempt to explore some of the intermixing thoughts that didn't necessarily get fully explored in our press release.
“An Ecosystem Approach”
While there is some dispute as to whether or not it really is a new idea, Interior officials are highly touting this as an innovative means of protecting multiple species by protecting their ecosystem. I like the concept behind this and I appreciate the recognition that species are often endangered – or cannot necessarily recover – due to problems with the system as a whole. It is hard to imagine an instance where a species would be in danger and the ecosystem is not out of whack.
And Hawaii is a very special place when it comes to ecosystems. Given Hawaii's relative isolation from other land, it has a great concentration of unique biological diversity. As mentioned above, all 48 of these species only exist naturally on the island of Kauai. This automatically gives them a common vulnerability to natural disasters and global warming. Furthermore, where they overlap (and the announcement says the 48 species exist in 6 different types of ecosystems) they then share common threats from things such as habitat destruction by feral pigs and invasive species.
Part of my concern with this approach is for what information we may not obtain by neglecting to study species individually. Indeed, Interior cites their lack of knowledge about each species separately as part of the desire to do this on a more macro level. What if by focusing only on the common areas these species share, we neglect to protect an area that an individual species needs to stave off extinction?
It's before my time, but I've also thought the Northwest Forest Plan was developed as an ecosystem-wide means of trying to protect dozens or hundreds of species with one common plan – even though the main attention has focused on indicator species such as the Northern Spotted Owl and salmon (which continue to indicate trouble). The past many years have demonstrated just how bad things can become when a President's administration does not agree with the plan.
There also seems to be a bit of a disconnect between the pride of protecting the ecosystem for the benefit of these 48 species and the fact that 90% of the land they are proposing to designate as critical habitat is already protected as critical habitat for other species. How does the ecosystem gain protection in this instance? Only 1,646 of the proposed 26,028 acres of critical habitat will receive new protections. And of the new land, most, according to a discussion on yesterday's media call, is already being protected by the Kauai Watershed Alliance and their work with The Nature Conservancy. I trust they are doing great work and looking at their photos I'm tempted to give them all of my money to protect those places, but how do the 48 species being listed benefit if there is no real increase in protected habitat? They are endangered now and 90% of what we are protecting for them is already protected.
I am also left fighting myself not just to say, “it's about darn time!” The Bush Administration has failed to protect America's natural heritage. And their tragic disregard for the law and the plants, fish and wildlife in need clouds the celebration that should come with this announcement. On one level, it is great that they are proposing to protect 48 species. On another level I know this proposal almost doubles the number of species they have listed under the Endangered Species Act, which I believe is only 51 since 2001. Their entire time in office and they have only listed 51 species to show for themselves, while thousands await attention! By comparison, President GHW Bush listed 56 per year! President Clinton did 62 per year!
I also know that just 6 months ago, this administration was promising lawmakers to propose listing for 71 species, by the end of September (which was the end of the government's fiscal year). If you are charitable, you can count the press release as being close enough for 48. That still leaves 23 species with no protection offered and 23 promises to Congress unfulfilled.
Even with all of my varied thoughts and concerns, I do want to say thank you to the Department of Interior for recognizing the need to protect these 48 plants, birds and lone insect. But now, where are the other 23 you've promised and what of the hundreds of others on the candidate list? They are in dire straights too.
For more info on the new proposal, see the Associated Press article.