One of the virtues of the Endangered Species Act is its openness to citizen participation. The Fish and Wildlife Service can designate likely species for federal protection. But ordinary citizens and nongovernmental organizations can petition to have candidates of their own choosing considered for protection. Not everyone thinks this is a virtue. The enemies of the Endangered Species Act are legion, especially in the House of Representatives, and one of their major complaints has always been citizen petitions, which they claim are politically motivated and expensive, especially when they include litigation.
An article in the current issue of Science, confirms the value of citizens’ petitions. The article asks, who does a better job choosing species that are biologically threatened, the Fish and Wildlife Service or public petitioners? The answer is surprising. Species nominated by petition or litigation “face higher levels of biological threat than species identified by F.W.S.” They also tend to be species that are threatened by development. As the authors note, “species in conflict with development face greater biological threat levels” than other species.
In short, the public path to species protection is at least as effective, and maybe more so, than the agency path. Among the hundreds of species originally identified by the public as likely candidates for protection are the northern spotted owl, the coastal California gnatcatcher and the United States population of the Canada lynx. Their listing as endangered or threatened led to important habitat protections that would not otherwise have occurred.
These impressive statistical results also help restate — and re-ratify — the reason the authors of the Endangered Species Act included the public in the first place. There are a lot more of us than there are Fish and Wildlife Service scientists. And the petitioning public isn’t merely an amorphous cross section of Americans. It includes scientists, local specialists, committed conservationists and passionate defenders of nature, who, in many cases, can keep a closer eye on the ground than the Fish and Wildlife Service.
This is not meant to denigrate the good work done by government scientists. But without public participation in species protection, the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act would be sharply reduced, which is exactly what its Congressional opponents have always wanted.
This Editorial appeared in the New York Times.
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Photo credit: David Chudnov.