The Federal Endangered Species Act recently turned 25 years old. Congress authorized it in December 1973, in response to a growing recognition that the planet is losing large numbers of species that we are unable to gauge the value of and that we have no way of replacing.Actually any loss of a species is by definition a loss of value. Not only do plants and animals provide us with important medical or genetic benefits, such as cures for diseases and more productive agricultural crops, but species have value merely by existing.
It is a given in biology that the more species there are in an ecosystem the more stable, productive and resilient that ecosystem will be. In biological and evolutionary terms, prairies are superior to crop fields, bottomland forests are more productive than parks. Nature's richness is counted in species.
Thick lawns, waving fields of grain and huge flocks of snow geese suggest fertility and lushness to us, but such monocultures, in which a relatively small number of hardy, adaptable species dominate the landscape, are fragile, and their yields are relatively small. Research has shown that as the number of species declines, so does the total biomass, the amount of material produced as measured by dry weight. Low diversity also increases vulnerability. Fewer species means individual members of the same species grow closer to one another, and diseases can spread easily.
The Endangered Species Act is designed to counter severe losses in the world's biodiversity that have arisen largely as a result of human activities. It's unfortunate but true that the human species has been and continues to be the primary cause of the disappearance of many other species.
Humans have chopped down rain forests, overhunted mammoths and passenger pigeons, introduced rats, cats, mussels and other aggressive species to new places where they thrived at the expense of the species that had evolved there, cleared and cultivated vast areas for grain and other crops, paved over habitats, filled in wetlands, plowed under prairies, killed off insects and other "pests" and sent millions of tons of pollutants into waterways and oceans. We've discharged chlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere, disrupting the ozone layer, and may have dramatically altered the weather of our planet with our carbon dioxide emissions.
Our impact on the planet is unprecedented, comparable in scope to previous mass extinctions caused by stellar or geologic events. Scientists speculate that we may eventually cause the disappearance of one-half to two-thirds of the world's species.
The work to save endangered species is our opportunity to preserve as much biodiversity as possible, to slow down the impact of human population and progress before we create an impoverished planet. We are the ones who must shoulder this responsibility.
Endangered species work trickles down from national to local efforts. Enactment of the provisions of the Endangered Species Act is the responsibility of the U.S. Fish Wildlife Service, which maintains a list of federally endangered and threatened species (see definitions, this page), makes recovery plans for each of those species and reviews projects and actions that could adversely affect listed species.
Missouri presently has 23 federally listed species (see list). The Ecological Services Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Columbia reviews about 100 actions a year that may have an impact on endangered species.
In those cases where endangered species might be affected, the office goes into consultation with the agency, developer or individual to minimize the impact of the road, bridge or other construction. In some cases, projects can be redesigned. In others, the endangered species might be relocated or comparable habitat created to replace the habitat affected.
Missouri has been spared confrontations over endangered species like those generated out west by the spotted owl. "In all my years here," said U.S. F&WS acting field supervisor Rick Hansen, "I cannot recall a single project that we've stopped in Missouri."
Not all states contribute resources to saving endangered species, but Missouri has decided that such work is crucial. "Missouri is one of the best, no question about that," Hansen said, "and I absolutely depend on the Conservation Department's top-rated biologists and their data. I mostly push paper in here, but the Conservation Department has the people in the field that can provide me with information that I can move forward."
Extinction is long in the making, and the Endangered Species Act is a relative newborn at 25. Even in this relatively short time, however, it has been responsible for some impressive results. No fewer than 18 species have been removed or upgraded from the list, and populations of about 60 other listed species are increasing their numbers or expanding their range as a result of protection under the Act. Untold other species also have benefited from habitat protection, improvement or restoration work on behalf of endangered species.
The forces toward extinction are large and many-faceted, not easily corrected by individual action. However, the Endangered Species Act provides a tool that can ensure that the world will continue to be populated by a wide diversity of species. So let's celebrate its birthday and hail the achievements of the Endangered Species Act. And let us hope that we seeing only the beginning of its long and productive career.
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