Extinction Politics

by Carolyn Chase


ome people think it goes too far. Many others feel it doesn't go far enough. Twenty-five years ago, on December 28th, 1973, the Endangered Species Act was passed to protect species of plants and animals in danger of extinction. A different Congress in a seemingly different age made the following findings::

"The Congress finds and declares that

  • various species of fish, wildlife, and plants in the United States have been
    rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation;
  • other species of fish, wildlife, and plants have been so depleted in numbers
    that they are in danger of or threatened with extinction;
  • these species of fish, wildlife, and plants are of aesthetic, ecological,
    educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people;
  • the United States has pledged itself as a sovereign state in the international community to conserve to the extent practicable the various species of fish or wildlife and plants facing extinction . . ."

It also enacted the following:
(1) It is further declared to be the policy of Congress that all Federal departments and agencies shall seek to conserve endangered species and threatened species and shall utilize their authorities in furtherance of the purposes of this Act.

(2) It is further declared to be the policy of Congress that Federal agencies shall
cooperate with State and local agencies to resolve water resource issues in
concert with conservation of endangered species."

Can you imagine the current Congress even discussing such things in a civil fashion? That's why we couldn't expect much from them in terms of practical reforms of the ESA, though many folks agree that reform is needed. Like all nice ideas and policy proclamations, the implementation has fallen prey to politics.

The devil is still in the details and this is why the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, along with fourteen other groups, have filed a lawsuit related to the implementation of San Diego's highly touted ESA-driven Habitat Conservation Plan, the Multiple Species Conservation Program, or MSCP.

The ESA was amended to allow for the creation of "Habitat Conservation Plans" to further the recovery of species. But the Southwest Center is claiming that the MSCP needs fixing in order to work and that certain species are not receiving adequate protection as the complex plan unfolds.

According to an affidavit submitted with respect to this case, Dr. Marie Simovich of the University of San Diego, member of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Vernal Pool Multi-Species Recovery Team, stated that the MSCP is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the San Diego fairy shrimp.

In a separate affidavit, Dr. Ellen Bauder of San Diego State University, lead author of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Vernal Pools of Southern California Draft Recovery Plan, asserted that the MSCP would preclude the recovery of six additional threatened and endangered species: Riverside
fairy shrimp, Otay Mesa mint, San Diego Mesa mint, Orcutt's grass, Spreading Navarretia, and San Diego button celery.

"If this is meant to be a model for the nation, we need to be honest about its failings. In its current form, the MSCP is bag of hollow promises." said Allison Rolfe, San Diego director for the Center.
"Our goal is to see what can be done to fix the MSCP before California's remaining precious plants, animals, and open spaces are sacrificed. Many of us participated for years in the MSCP process. We
were told over and over again that vernal pools would not be impacted. The first time a project with vernal pools on site came before the City Council after the MSCP was adopted, the Council voted to put a parking lot and commercial buildings on top of 66 critically endangered vernal pools."

Vernal pools, depressions left by the ancient ocean, support several of the region's most critically endangered species which spring to life with the winter rains and remain dormant for as many as 10 to 15 years if the pools are dry.

Eric Bowlby, commenting on behalf of the San Diego Sierra Club remarked, "It is with some regret but also with great resolve that the Sierra Club stands here today as a co-plaintiff in this lawsuit directed at weaknesses in the highly-touted MSCP. The regret is that we were unable to fix these concerns inside of the lengthy process, though we consistently pointed them out along the way. The resolve is to ensure that the MSCP lives up to the critical standards necessary to fulfill its promise.

"We have lost 91% of our wetland habitats and we have but 2% of vernal pool habitats left. Council members and City staff insisted that their implementation would result in avoidance of wetland impacts. While the principals of habitat conservation and the MSCP are sound, the goals of MSCP cannot be met if it's 'business as usual' in the wetlands."

The Southwest Center is one of the nation's leading endangered species advocates. Previous petitions and suits by the Center resulted in the San Diego fairy shrimp, San Diego Mesa mint, San Diego button celery, Otay Mesa mint, and Orcutt's grass being listed under the Endangered Species Act.

When the ESA was passed 109 species were considered as covered under the act. Today the number of species considered officially endangered is 1,177 (475 animals, 702 plants). But there is a backlog of requests for species to be listed and abundant evidence of politicization of the listings process itself. When scientists consistently speculate that dozens of species are dropping into extinction DAILY, the fact that the ESA only shows 1216 species officially in trouble, reveals a substantial data gap somewhere.

Of the total of 1,216 species that have been listed under the act.
-- 11 have recovered
-- 7 became extinct
-- 21 were removed from the list for other reasons, such as a subsequent determination that they were not truly endangered.

Hawaii has the most number of species listed under the act. with 298 and California ranks as #2 with 256 species qualifying for coverage.

Opponents of the ESA claim that it was never intended to save "lesser" species and plants and believe it tramples on property rights. Proponents of the ESA point to consistent public support for the concept of protecting ecosystems and all their distinct species.

This lawsuit, brought by the SWCBD will strengthen the MSCP and help validate the species preservation claims that everyone is counting on for habitat conservation in San Diego to be effective.

Carolyn Chase is editor of the San Diego Earth Times which is published by Earth Media, Inc., which is also one of the fourteen co-plaintiffs in this suit.