Posted by: stiltsville | June 4, 2011

“Listed:” Dispatches from the Edge of Doom


In 1973, Republican president Richard Nixon, of all people, signed the Endangered Species Act into law. The rapid decline of bald eagles and alligators led the Senate to pass the law 92-0.

The Act was “visionary and comprehensive,” says the University of Vermont’s Joe Roman. It was staunchly prohibitive, and had “enormous reach,” he notes, outlawing not only direct take of endangered species through hunting or removal, but also destruction of endangered species’ habitat, a rule that gave regulators the power to stop private landowners and government agencies from cutting trees, diverting a river, or erecting a building. “A feat just about unimaginable forty years on, ” says Roman.

Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act"", traces this four-decade history — while describing Roman’s cross-the-nation tour following the tales (and sometime tails) of the many creatures (and a few plants) that have been at the center of the ESA’s contested place in American life: whooping cranes, right whales, grey wolves, Indiana bats, Florida panthers and others.

Listed begins with an odd and small fish, the snail darter, that almost stopped an enormous dam. The now-iconic fight over the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Tellico Dam highlights how much has changed since the Act’s inception. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the darter. Brought before Congress, a Tennessee legislator named Al Gore voted to change the rules in favor of the dam. Freshman congressman Newt Gingrich voted for the fish. The fish lost, though it survives in other waterways.

“The ESA has been more flexible over time,” Roman says, “it’s become more of a permitting act than a prohibiting act.” A few creatures have gone extinct while waiting to be listed on the Endangered Species Act. But many other creatures, like the bald eagle, alligator, brown pelican, and gray whale, have recovered and now thrive thanks to ESA protection.

“Although it may be decades before we can adequately assess its effectiveness,” Roman writes, “it is clear that protection works. If we see the glass as half full, most listed species improve or remain stable. Dozens more would have gone extinct without protection.”

Take the Florida panther that looks soulfully out from the cover of the new book. Once roaming across much of the American South, by the 1980s panthers on the East Coast had dwindled to an inbred few dozen in the swampy Everglades. Without the genetic diversity needed to survive, the big cats were written off by many people as walking dead. So the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under the banner of the ESA, brought in eight female panthers from Texas. Slightly compromising the distinct genetic identity of the Florida population was well worth the outcome: a considerably recovered population that now breeds successfully.


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