Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Status of the Endangered Species Act

Terns in Florida

I'm tracking this issue largely because I don't know of anyone else who is.

Care of the Society of Environmental Journalists, a fairly detailed breakdown of the status of reauthorization efforts, and some efforts to water ESA down. The same group has a detailed look at attacks on designating critical habitat.

They neatly tie up two issues. One, the efforts to require sound science. This is a nice phrase, but really means nothing. Chris Mooney has been tracking that language and its effects broadly. In terms of ESA it would make it next to impossible to get many species listed, or adequate habitat declared critical.

We know next to nothing about most species. People don't realize that, but it's true. Best estimates for the number of species in existence run between 12 and 30 million. We've described about 1 million. So already we know nothing about 90% of all species. Of the described species, many were identified in a museum, years after they were caught, skinned, tagged and stored. So all we know is where and when the species was caught, and what it looks like. With luck, the stomach is in alcohol somewhere, and it's possible to recover some information on food preferences. That assumes a level of interest and available time that scientists don't have.

The consequence of this is that, for most species, we don't know

  • how many there are

  • what they eat

  • where they nest

  • how many offspring they have

  • what eats them

  • how long they live

  • when they are active

  • how they attract and find mates

Without that information, we really can't say for certain that a species is in some specific danger. We know it's there, and we've trapped in other areas and it doesn't show up, so it's in that broad class of species that lives on the edge.

Assume that “sound science” is, as one advocate says “whatever I believe and you don't.” That imposes a standard of, at its most generous, beyond a reasonable doubt. At worst, it would require proof beyond any doubt, an impossible standard. Right now, we operate closer to a preponderance of evidence. For species about which little is known, here's how you build reasonable doubt.

Lawyer: How many of these have been collected for study?

Scientist: There are only three specimens in any museum.

L: How many times have they been caught in the wild?

S: It's hard to say, because the only records of them being caught are those three museum specimens. They all come from the same site, and no one has ever trapped there again.

L: Is that enough information to estimate the population?

S: No.

L: The range?

S: No.

L: They could occur elsewhere?

S: Yes, possibly.

L: In many places?

S: (After being instructed to answer “yes” or “no”) Yes, possibly.

L: They could be abundant elsewhere?

S: (After instruction) Yes, possibly.

And there you have it, it's possible that the species isn't in danger. A more reasonable standard – given that the species at greatest risk are those about which the least is known – is to require the best available science, not the best science. If it bothers you, set aside a bunch of cash, and require that more intensive study take place for the next decade. Fund grad students to get basic data on the species, and then come back. In many cases, that happens through the courts already. But standardize it, and have a process that uses those data after N years. That would be “sound science.”

MLK” by U2 from the album The Unforgettable Fire (1985, 2:31).