At 40, US Endangered Species Act Faces Attacks

  • Reporter John R. Platt blogs for the Scientific American about endangered species. Photo: Courtesy John R. Platt

December 13, 2013

The federal Endangered Species Act turns 40 on Dec. 28, 2013. The legislation's had some big successes, like bringing back the bald eagle.  Now there are some attacks on the federal law, and similar state-level species preservation efforts. John R. Platt blogs for the Scientific American about endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. He talks with The Allegheny Front about the state of endangered species. This is part of our coverage commemorating the Endangered Species Act anniversary, produced with the assistance of the Point Park News Service. Students at Point Park University produced stories about the Pennsylvania Game Commission considering the river otter for hunting; the colorful, but oft-hidden Blanding's turtle; and the state of the bald eagle and peregrine falcons in Pennsylvania.  

Below is a transcription of Jennifer Szweda Jordan's interview with Platt.

Why are there many people who don't like this legislation? 

Well, with any environmental legislation, whether that's coming out of the EPA or anywhere else, there are people that don't like it. Mainly that comes in the form of companies. They would like to be able to mine or build or drill wherever they want and these laws sometimes get in their way.  Also with the Endangered Species Act, you have the unusual situation where there's a lot of myths and misperceptions about it. Where people think, wrongly, individuals think that it's going to take away their land. 

So now the Endangered Species Management Self-Determination Act has been introduced by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. It would bar the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service from listing any new species under ESA without approval of the governors of any states where the species resides. I know Rand Paul, a libertarian, and the Tea Party as wellnot fans of this legislation. But even before they came on the scene, is this the first time this has faced such criticism? 

Yeah. There have been things like this, especially over the last couple years. Whether it's on the state or federal level.  Even over the last few years, Republicans in the House have created a working group to look at how the Endangered Species Act could be updated to a modern setting. It's not necessarily just the Tea Party. I would call it a pro-business wing. Senator Paul obviously has long been identified as a libertarian. You also get a lot of states' rights people. And that tends to look at the federal government as an interfering body.  

Let's turn to one particular species in Pennsylvania that's in the news. The river otter has been brought back recently through reintroduction efforts. It has been on the Pennsyvlania threatened and endangered legislation. This allowed for its reintroduction. Now the Game Commission is probably going to move forward with allowing hunting on this animal. To me, this is an unusual turn of events. But maybe I'm wrong. How typical is it that an animal is brought back, and allowed to be hunted soon after?    

Well, here's the great irony of an endangered species status for a species that has been hunted. As soon as it has recovered and it drops off the Endangered Species Act, you can hunt it again. And this has happened with the grey wolf, for example. You don't see this too often because the species that have faced all this hunting pressure take awhile to recover, so we haven't seen that many recover. 

Well, I don't want to end on such an unfortunate note, but I do want to point out one of your latest blog posts, about an Ohio catfishtell me more about it. 

It's called the Scioto madtom. A madtom is this little teeny, tiny catfish. It's been described as about the size of a paper clip. It was only an inch or two long. And it was only seen a couple times in all history. It's one of those examples where a species protected under the Endangered Species Act has gone extinct. But it was probably extinct before it even was listed under the Endangered Species Act. And it's one of those little things where there's an awful lot of biodiversity out there that we don't recognize. It's either there, we always see it and therefore it's invisible because it's common, or we think it's common. And sometimes don't realize what's gone until it's gone.