Endangered species chart a fresh course
But questions linger over Bush's legacy on conservation
Conservationists were cheering last week as US President Barack Obama signalled that he would take a fresh approach to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) compared with his predecessor. But evaluating the world's most famous environmental law – and whether the administration of George W. Bush caused lasting harm – is not so simple.
On 3 March, Obama advised federal agencies not to abide by a last-minute regulation set by the Bush administration in December. The Bush regulation allowed agencies to decide whether planned actions would harm endangered species without first consulting scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or the National Marine Fisheries Service, the usual arbiters of such questions. In a speech at the Department of the Interior, Obama said his change would "help restore the scientific process to its rightful place at the heart of ESA, a process undermined by past administrations" (see ).
The recent Bush administration listed 71 new species as threatened or endangered during Bush's two terms, compared with 538 in Bill Clinton's two terms and 251 in the first George Bush's single term. Whispers of politicization of the process were made solid when an interior department official, Julie MacDonald, resigned in May 2007 after it emerged that she had inappropriately pressured scientists to alter their findings in agency reports. Seven decisions she made, including designating a tiny critical habitat for the Canadian lynx (Lynx canadensis) and delisting Preble's meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius preblei), were later rescinded.
Some conservationists argue that Bush's actions — or inactions — can be tied to specific harm to specific species. Noah Greenwald, programme director for the Center for Biological Diversity at its field office in Portland, Oregon, cites the summer-run Lake Sammamish kokanee (Oncorhynchus nerka), a species of freshwater salmon that swims up streams near Seattle, Washington, to spawn. This kokanee might have been considered a "distinct population segment" from kokanee that spawn in other streams, and from kokanee that spawn in the same streams at different times, because they are reproductively isolated from them. Scientists were able to find only three summer-run kokanee nests between 1998 and 2001, and in 2007 — seven years after being petitioned to look at the population — the FWS decided it was not significantly different enough to list. This population is now gone. "I think a Gore administration would have taken it more seriously," Greenwald says.
But it is not clear whether listing the kokanee would have kept it from extinction. A 2007 analysis of the ESA's effectiveness found that endangered terrestrial and freshwater vertebrates became less endangered — as determined by a score given by conservation group NatureServe in Arlington, Virginia — only if substantial funding is spent on their recovery. (Substantial funding was defined as the top third of funded species, which receive 97% of funding.) Simply listing with little or no expenditure actually harmed species, on average, as landowners had an incentive to remove such species from their land to avoid restrictions on its use (P. Ferraro et al. J. Environ. Econ. Manag. 54, 245–261; 2007).
"It is hard to say whether anything the Bush administration did was harmful," says lead author Paul Ferraro of Georgia State University in Atlanta, "when the causal relationships between species recovery, and the ESA and its components are so poorly understood."
The FWS blames the low level of listing during the Bush years on lawsuits that turned manpower away from listing and towards the designation of 'critical habitat' for listed species. Government-wide expenditures on endangered species do not show a decline under Bush.
In addition, some Bush policies beyond the ESA may also affect endangered species. Some may well be helped by his setting aside nearly 900,000 square kilometres of marine habitat in the Pacific Ocean, says Jim DiPeso, policy director of Republicans for Environmental Protection, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. But, he notes, the Bush administration's inaction on limiting greenhouse-gas emissions "cost us and the world precious time in addressing climate change, which already is having demonstrable impacts on numerous wildlife species and will continue to do so".
Craig Manson, former assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks at the Interior department under Bush, says "it is too soon to tell" whether Bush did harm or good to endangered species. "Any answer to that has to be either speculation or wishful thinking or political fable," he says.
Under Obama, the FWS has already made one decision that pleases conservationists: revising MacDonald's discredited critical habitat for the Canadian lynx, from 4,700 up to 100,000 square kilometres.