Going, Going, Gone

by Carolyn Chase


he plight of endangered plants and animals in San Diego County finally hit a threshold where they could not be ignored - when developers started having trouble getting permits for their projects. This led to regional habitat plans that established processes to deal with new announcements of declining plants and animals. But despite having negotiated and agreed to those rules, the development community continues to become agitated when it hears that another critter is being "listed" as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

San Diego County happens to have the highest number of threatened and endangered species of any county in the United States. We have the dubious honor of being labeled a "hot spot" for biodiversity loss in Science magazine. Why? Species become endangered when they no longer have a place to live or sufficient area to forage for food or raise their young. Species become endangered when pollution, bulldozing or other invasions so alter their environment that they can no longer reproduce and survive.

San Diego County is at a point in our regional population growth where there is still some land left for the local critters, but it's rapidly disappearing under subdivisions. There are many species of plants and animals that aren't going to make it unless some major changes take place.

Now, you might think that either a critter is endangered or it's not. That would be too simple. When is an endangered species not endangered? When the government hasn't declared it endangered. So a species might very well be declining, but if the government hasn't officially declared it threatened or endangered it doesn't qualify for any protections. Or, even when it does qualify for protections, those protections are poorly implemented or underfunded. Another way to make it difficult to protect endangered species is to eliminate or never fund studies to determine their status. Yet another way is to bow to political pressures to stop or slow down the listing process itself. Dozens of species have languished for lack of political action while the science has clearly indicated that protection is warranted under the law.

Trying to bring governmental practices in line with both nature and the law, the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity and the California Native Plant Society filed suit in San Diego federal court against the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for refusing to make final decisions on whether to list 44 imperiled California species as endangered.

The lawsuit has sparked media stories across the U.S., highlighting the Fish & Wildlife Service's chronic refusal to list species as endangered unless ordered to so by the courts. All the species named in the lawsuit have been proposed for listing and many have been stalled since the mid 1970s, while they continue to decline. The Southwest Center alone has won 23 lawsuits forcing the agency to propose or list species since 1993.

The 44 species occur in dozens of imperiled ecosystems across the state - a sign that California's natural heritage is unraveling at the hands of urban sprawl, overgrazing, mining, water pumping, and industrial scale agriculture.

California's ecological and economic well being are intimately linked. In 1991, the California Biodiversity Executive Council, which includes the 17 largest state and federal resource and land management agencies as well as counties throughout the state, signed a memorandum of understanding stating, "The state's rich natural heritage...provides the basis for California's economic strength and quality of life. Sustaining the diversity and condition of natural ecosystems is a prerequisite for maintaining the state's prosperity."

David Pimentel, professor in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, wrote in the December '97 issue of Bioscience: "All human societies depend on a healthy and productive natural environment that contains diverse plant and animal species. The rapidly growing world population and increased human activity threaten many species. The current extinction rate of species ranges from approximately 1000 to 10,000 times higher than natural extinction rates (Kellert and Wilson 1993), and if this trend continues, as many as 2 million species of plants and animals will be exterminated worldwide by the middle of the next century (Pimm et al. 1995). This forecast is alarming because biodiversity is essential for the sustainable functioning of the agricultural, forest, and natural ecosystems on which humans depend (Myers 1994, Raven and Johnson 1992, Wilson 1994)."

But the lifeboat ethic is well entrenched. I ran into this ethic the last time I appeared on the radio to discuss the listing of the Quino checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha quino) [QCB] as endangered. The host asked, "Isn't the demise of these animals just the survival of the fittest and evolution in action? Isn't extinction natural? If the boat's too full, some are just not going to make it. You have let some of them go. Shouldn't we just write off these plants and animals so weak and undeserving of survival? The dinosaurs went extinct so extinction is natural right? A mere butterfly should not stop a bulldozer."

But this is no "mere butterfly." During the days of the European exploration and settlement of California, and up till the 1950s, the QCB was considered to be one of the most abundant species of butterfly in southern California. Habitat degradation and destruction has resulted in the dramatic decline of the species throughout its former range to a point where it currently is in danger of extinction.

We have evidence that mass extinction's have happened. Their causes are hotly debated and may hold the key to long term human survival, but to ascribe this current round of extinction to nature instead of human activity ignores the counsel of scientists - across many disciplines - who study the health of the systems upon which we are all dependent.

But we continue to destroy biodiversity for our own convenience and create a smokescreen of good intentions behind which blatant environmental disregard can continue. If we want to behave as gods, we should then accept the matching divine responsibility to preserve and protect all life forms, not just those that are politically expedient.