Democracy works for Endangered Species Act

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Aug. 16, 2012

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The bald eagle, a living symbol of democracy as the national bird of the United States, was on the "threatened" list for the lower 48 states until 2007. Photo by Saffron Blaze via Wikipedia Commons.

When it comes to protecting endangered species, the power of the people is key, an analysis of listings under the U.S. Endangered Species Act finds.

The journal Science is publishing the analysis comparing listings of "endangered" and "threatened" species initiated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that administers the Endangered Species Act, to those initiated by citizen petition.

"We found that citizens, on average, do a better job of picking species that are threatened than does the Fish and Wildlife Service. That's a really interesting and surprising finding," says co-author Berry Brosi, a biologist and professor of environmental studies at Emory University.

Brosi conducted the analysis with Eric Biber, a University of California, Berkeley School of Law professor who specializes in environmental law.

Controversy has surrounded the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since it became law nearly 40 years ago. A particular flashpoint is the provision that allows citizens to petition the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to list any unprotected species, and use litigation to challenge any FWS listing decision. Critics of this provision say the FWS wastes time and resources processing the stream of citizen requests. Another argument is that many citizen-initiated listings are driven less by concern for a species than by political motives, such as blocking a development project.

The study authors counter that their findings bolster the need to keep the public highly involved.

"There are some 100,000 species of plants and animals in North America, and asking one federal agency to stay on top of that is tough," Biber says. "If there were restrictions on the number of citizen-initiated petitions being reviewed, the government would lose a whole universe of people providing high-quality information about species at risk, and it is likely that many species would be left unprotected."

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