Six months ago, Center for Biological Diversity Executive Director Kieran Suckling sat before the House Resources Committee on the hot seat.
Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador and Chairman Doc Hastings grilled the leader of the group that has made its business to use the courts to protect imperiled animals and plants. The primary argument Hastings made was that since only 1 percent of the species listed have been recovered, the Endangered Species Act is “failing badly.”
Suckling tried to make the case that Hastings premise was wrong and that the law had protected many species that would have otherwise gone extinct and that many were on the road to recovery. But his point was lost in committee members attacks on his credibility, including Labrador who in questioning got him to acknowledge he had a degree in philosophy, not science.
So Suckling called on some of the 25 scientists he has working for him to develop an analysis of 110 endangered species. The report, released today finds that 90 percent are on track to meet recovery goals set by federal scientists in the time they predicted.
On average, species recovered in 25 years, while their recovery plan predicted 23 years.
Hasting’s case for failure was that of almost 2,000 U.S. and foreign plant endangered species only two dozen have "recovered" to the point where they could be taken off the endangered list. These dueling analyses aren’t going to change many minds nor provide much basis for updating the polarizing law in the future.
The Center's report makes the case that we need an Endangered Species Act if we value biological diversity and that in many cases it can work. But it dodges some of the toughest questions.
So what about the species that are not on the road to recovery and perhaps never can be because their habitat has disappeared because of climate change? How can we make what authors Charles Mann and Mark Plummer called “Noah’s Choice,” to allow some species to wink out?
With scientists predicting from 20 to 40 percent of species worldwide may not survive the bottleneck of climate change this century alone, how do we make the choices to shift limited resources from extinct creatures walking to protecting species and ecosystems we can recover?
The Center’s report lists the Yellowstone grizzly bear as recovered even though environmental groups successfully sued to reverse the federal delisting decision. Remember, Congress intervened to delist wolves because Suckling’s group and others could not find a settlement.
Must we squabble over how many is enough while other species that can be recovered are neglected and ecosystems degraded even though minor changes in land use can make the difference? What is the ultimate fate of the Selkirk Mountain caribou whether it remains listed or not?
Snake River Sockeye salmon have been listed for more than 20 years and they still don’t have a recovery plan. None of the Columbia and Snake salmon and steelhead do.
The Endangered Species Act has not been reauthorized since the 1980s in part because its issues are polarized between Hastings' view and Suckling's. This clash of values prevents a clear eyed look at the precautionary principle identified by naturalist Aldo Leopold: “Who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts.”