Category: Environment

Endangered Species Act: The Semantics of Being “Endangered”

If you are a land owner, pour yourself a cup of coffee, tea, or favorite adult beverage and have a seat. I want you to imagine yourself in a difficult personal scenario and then ask you a seemingly simple but important question that may take some time and focus to comprehend and answer… Now then, take a sip. Ready?

Assume you are about to face a serious loss of economic prosperity due to a federal or state “cease and desist” order on the economic activity you were performing whilst using your privately held land or other natural resource. Assume further that you weren’t causing any harm to anyone else’s health, welfare or private property. Instead, you were found to be causing harm to a protected and endangered wildlife species that is listed under section 4 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973.

OK… This would be a very undesirable financial situation for you and your family to be in, to be sure. But it also would be a very understandable public concern over your causing the possible elimination of an entire species. Pondering a heavy moral dilemma such as this may just require another sip from your cup.

Yet, as you begin to contemplate rearranging your whole life just to save a species of small, furtive bird, or seldom seen fish, wouldn’t you want to at least be assured that the government has made certain that your economic actions were indeed harming a distinguishable “species” that was rare enough, and had a projected future fragile enough, to warrant all the economic harm that will surely descend upon you?  

Certainly, all human activity has some impact on the world’s flora and fauna. The least the government could do is assure you that their taxonomy of “species” to determine the relative scarcity that they claim is being aggravated by your economic activity was adequately defined and broadly accepted within the scientific world. Right?

OK… Take another sip — you’ll need it. The federal legal process for listing or delisting a species as endangered is clearly written, assuming the definition of what constitutes a separate species is well defined. However, it happens that any definition of “species” that the government might choose to use for assessing which ones are scarce enough to warrant listing as “endangered” will garner little consensus from across the biological sciences. Why? Because there is no real agreement among scientists as to what constitutes the proper definition of a distinct “species.”

Oh, my. I’ll give you a moment to clean up that sudden burst of drink sprayed all over your video screen…

Yes, this is true. The “species problem” is an ongoing argument amongst scientists for the past century. It seems the problem of speciation, or finding a universally accepted taxonomy of what actually differentiates the various species, has been roiling in the biological sciences for over one hundred years. That certainly isn’t what we were taught in high school biology with the rusty scalpels and dead, smelly frogs.

Which begs the question: If scientists cannot agree as to what defines a distinct “species,” then how can the government determine as to what defines an “endangered” one? The ESA defines an endangered species as being “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” However, it never defines what separates one species one from another, to determine the relative scarcity of a given species. It presumes this definition is commonly understood and broadly supported by science, which it is not.

Take another sip and bear with me, as an example will illustrate my point. The Baltimore Oriole and the Bullock’s Oriole were each once considered to be the same species. They were referred to collectively as the species Northern Oriole. Changes in how scientists perceived the definition of species led biologists to now consider them as distinct and separate species. What if the strain of birds now known as Bullock’s Oriole was rare and nearly extinct, while the strain now known as Baltimore Oriole was vibrant and ever present. Should the ESA stifle economic activity that endangers the Bullock’s Oriole if the “acceptable” definition of species were still considered inclusive, rather than exclusive of the two strains?

I can see you are almost finished with your drink. I’ll let you think about that question for a while, because who knows? Maybe the definition of the Oriole species will again change soon. Go on. Take another sip…

Using Benefit-Cost Analysis to Protect the Environment

Increased use of Benefit-Cost Analysis (BCA) could either improve or harm the environment. As usual, the devil is in the details. Since the beneficial (=correct) use of BCA is readily achievable, the political momentum behind increased use of BCA should be seen as an opportunity to improve environmental decision-making. Lobbying efforts and political capital should be directed at appropriately defining BCA practices, and seeing to it that it is used in ways that are consistent with its capabilities. For environmentalists, the alternative is bleak. Opposition would consume more of their precious political capital, and it would give anti-environmentalists another sound-bite to use to attack productive, market mechanism-oriented environmental initiatives. Furthermore, since resisting the political momentum may be futile, incorrect, destructive uses of BCA might then predominate.