Endangered Species | Letters | Chicago Reader

Endangered Species 

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To the editors:

As we debate the renewal of the Endangered Species Act ("Environment: The Endangered List," November 5), we might ponder the words of biologist Norman D. Levine, who wrote in an article in the journal BioScience: "Perhaps 95 percent of the species that once existed no longer exist. . . . What species preservers are trying to do is stop the clock. It cannot and should not be done. Extinction is an inevitable part of evolution."

Suppose we lose a species here and there. How devastating is that really? "Mass extinctions have been recorded since the dawn of paleontology," writes Harvard paleontologist Stephen Gould. The most severe of these occurred approximately 250 million years ago, at the end of the Permian Period, with an estimated 96 percent extinction of species.

There is general agreement among scientists that today's species represent a small proportion of species that ever existed--probably less than 1 percent. Yet extinctions provide an opening for the development of new species, as when small mammals expanded rapidly after dinosaurs disappeared.

The Endangered Species Act has proven itself a dismal failure. Of the 1,227 domestic and international species that have been listed under the ESA, only 17 have been "rescued" from the list. Of these, 7 were delisted due to extinction, 4 were removed because of "original data error" and 3 others recovered naturally, independent of the act.

What do we do when animals themselves do the endangering? Deer numbers are up to ten times larger than when Columbus discovered America, as many as 40 per square mile in some places. But these furry defoliators love rare plants. Nationally, a recent poll of scientists found 98 threatened or endangered species disturbed by whitetail deer alone.

How do we define a species? Deciding what populations are truly endangered requires studies to determine if they represent sufficiently unique gene pools. Yet in most cases this work is not done, if it is done at all, until after the plant or animal is already listed.

The Columbian white-tailed deer, for example, designated a distinct population because it survives only on a few islands in the Columbia River, has been listed since 1973. Yet recent studies reveal that, genetically, it is a plain-vanilla whitetail, not a unique population at all.

What was listed as the Mexican duck in 1967 was delisted in 1978 when it was found not to be a pure species at all but a cross between Mexican ducks and common mallards. Likewise, the dusky seaside sparrow was delisted when it was found to be a hybrid.

There is another issue to be addressed here. While the framers of the Constitution neglected to address the importance of protecting giant flies and special rats, they did specifically address the issue of private property. The Fifth Amendment says the federal government cannot seize property without paying just compensation. Yet under the ESA that is exactly what has been happening.

Environmentalists wax so eloquent about the need to preserve pristine habitats and such from the onslaught of "high technology," which in environmentalist eyes comprises everything since the discovery of fire, that one is almost moved to wish that people who have families, need places to work, places to shop and places to live would simply disappear so every furry woodland creature could remain in pristine bliss.

No doubt they were thrilled to hear that the politically correct townsfolk of Malibu, California, have granted honorary citizenship to all whales and dolphins, an action that should, at the very least, raise the average I.Q. of Malibu's citizenry.

Unfortunately for the greenies, people exist who have families, and need shopping malls, factories and houses. The Endangered Species Act enforces the views of those people who value diversity above everything else. The problem is that they are not the ones who are paying the price for this enforcement. The cost falls on loggers in Washington, would-be home owners in California and Florida, and taxpayers and property owners all over the United States.

We should value other things: jobs, housing, privacy, the freedom to do what we want when we want with what we own--all of which are threatened by the Endangered Species Act. Despite the fact, for example, that scientists are not sure that the northern spotted owl is not of the same species as the Mexican spotted owl, which is numerous and just lives somewhat south, we are prepared to sacrifice 30,000 jobs, according to the Interior Department.

Contrary to popular myth development and preservation are not incompatible. Since the development of Prudhoe Bay in pristine Alaska, the caribou herd has more than quadrupled. The snow geese population has gone from 50 nesting pairs to 302. The Alaska Fish and Game Department reports record numbers of grizzly bears now using the Prudhoe field area for habitat and mating. And despite claims that the Valdez oil spill "forever destroyed" the fisheries in Prince William Sound, the area in 1990 and 1991 registered the biggest salmon catches in history.

Despite the evidence, we are being asked now to prevent development on 0.14 percent of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the retrieval of 9.3 billion barrels of domestic oil, an act that a Wharton Econometrics study estimates would produce 735,000 jobs and boost the economy some $50.4 billion without disturbing a single caribou or snow goose.

Common sense is an endangered species.

Daniel John Sobieski

S. Monitor

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