|MF: Mike Fry |
BN: Beth Nelson
NG: Noah Greenwald
MF: I’m very excited to talk to our next guest.
BN: I am, too. In light of hearing a lot in the press in December about the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, I would hear these very short pieces about the Endangered Species Act, and I would have a million questions and thoughts after I’d hear these very short pieces about the impact or lack thereof, or these little conversations going on. I got curious and I started poking around. I wanted to find a guest who could speak to this, and lucky for us, we found Noah Greenwald.
He’s with the Center for Biological Diversity, and he is their Endangered Species Director. He focuses his efforts on protecting new species under the Endangered Species Act to make sure that there’s some effective protections around them. We’re going to learn a lot about what the Center for Biological Diversity is trying to do in the space of endangered species. We’re going to learn a little bit about the history of the Endangered Species Act, and we’re going to ask some questions about successes and maybe where the gaps look to be for someone like Noah in this legislation that’s been so significant in our country’s history.
MF: It’s so interesting, because if you talk to people on any side of the Endangered Species Act, they can be very emotional.
MF: There are people who are very emotional who hate it, people who are very emotional who love it, but the fact of the matter is, to have a rational discussion around it you need to have some specific measures and measurable results. We’re going to get to that with Noah as well.
Welcome to Animal Wise Radio, Noah.
NG: Thanks, Mike. Thanks, Beth.
BN: Noah, maybe you could start by introducing our listeners to the work and the mission of the Center for Biological Diversity.
NG: Sure. The Center for Biological Diversity is a national organization that works to protect endangered species and the places they live. We do that through a variety of means – through lobbying, through educating the public, through litigation, and through direct advocacy all over the country.
We’ve had a lot of success over the years. We’ve specialized a lot in enforcing the Endangered Species Act. Over the course of our roughly 20-year history, we’ve helped put hundreds of species on the threatened and endangered species list, and obtained millions of acres of critical habitat protection for species as well.
BN: I would suspect that part of the work, being a watchdog or trying enforce aspects of the Endangered Species Act puts you on people’s lists for cheers or jeers. How long has your organization been at this work? I think the story of how it all originated is pretty fascinating, if you wouldn’t mind sharing that as well.
NG: Sure. Our earliest roots stretch back to 1989 when we started off as a group in the Southwest focused on protecting Southwest ecosystems in Arizona and New Mexico. I first started at the Center in 1997. At that time, we were the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity. We were like a lot of the groups that formed in the 1990s, focused on a particular geography, and trying to protect special places in that geography.
We quickly specialized in protecting species, because there were so many endangered species in the Southwest. There’s the Mexican Gray Wolf, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, and so many more that are and were in peril by logging in Southwest forests or water withdrawals from Southwest rivers. Throughout the 1990s that was our primary focus. Then, in the early 2000’s we became the Center for Biological Diversity and went national.
One other quick thing I would mention is that most of our environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, were passed in the early 1970s signed by President Nixon. Many of them include what’s called a Citizen Suit Provision, which I consider an act of brilliance on the part of Congress. They recognize that something like endangered animals don’t actually have a vote or make campaign contributions, so they don’t really have political power. What they did is they created the Citizen Suit Provision, and it allows citizens to go to court to protect these species.
BN: I would have to agree with the brilliance of that move and tie it back again a little bit to the origins as I read about your organization on your website in that a couple of your founders were working in the field for the US Forest Service. They were identifying that there was an owl that was going to be threatened by mass logging in an area. There was a particular species that reached out its little self and touched them on the shoulder.
NG: Yes; that was the Mexican Spotted Owl. Most people have probably heard of the Northern Spotted Owl in the Pacific Northwest.
NG: They’re close cousins. They’re subspecies. I actually myself did Northern Spotted Owl surveys in the 1990s as well, and that’s how two of our founders, Peter and Karen met was doing these Mexican Spotted Owl surveys and figuring out that even though they found these Mexican Spotted Owls, sometimes the forest service would log anyway.
I like how you characterized it as the animal reached out, because Spotted Owls are really kind of like that. You can actually call them and they’ll come in to look at you. They’ll actually look at you and sort of respond to you. They are an interactive animal in that sense and an ambassador of old forests.
MF: It’s a great place for us to take a quick break. When we come back, we’ll have more of the conversation with Noah Greenwald from the Center for Biological Diversity.
MF: On the line we’ve got a fantastic guest. His name is Noah Greenwald from the Center for Biological Diversity. In the first segment, he talked about how they really started out as an agency focused on specific ecosystems in the Southwest United States, and they quickly realized that they needed to grow the vision. When he was talking about it, I realized what an important shift that is. So many animals don’t just stay locally isolated in their own little geographic area. Many animals move across great distances.
BN: They’re unruly that way, aren’t they?
MF: We have to protect the local habitat. We have to, but if we’re going to protect species, we’ve got to do it beyond our local geography as well. I thought that was a really brilliant approach that they have started taking now under the name of the Center for Biological Diversity; and I guess I shouldn’t say “now” as it’s been changed for a long time.
Noah, was that part of the rationale for making that change?
NG: Yes, that was for sure part of the rationale. It’s also reflecting the fact that extinction is a problem across the U.S., and really across the planet. As I’m sure many of your listeners know, there’s scientific consensus that we’re in what’s called the “sixth extinction crisis.” Similar to when all the dinosaurs went extinct, we’re in a period of time where species are going extinct at a greatly accelerated rate – scientists estimate at least a thousand times the background rate.
From our perspective, this is perhaps the most serious problem the planet facts. Extinction is irreversible and something that we felt we had to address across the U.S., and to some degree outside the U.S. as well.
MF: In this case, it’s not a meteor that’s hitting the earth – human activity is like the meteor.
NG: Exactly. Unlike past extinctions where there was an asteroid or change in atmosphere or something like that, it appears that it’s us that’s the cause.
BN: Noah, I’d just like to highlight part of the mission statement for the Center for Biological Diversity. I think it’s just beautifully stated that as an organization, you believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature and that the existence of our world, of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants, those are tightly linked, and that diversity has intrinsic value. You think about that in context of this growing consensus among scientists that we are in a mass extinction, it’s a really sobering thought if we stop to reflect on our own survival amidst this.
These are some of the little things I was thinking about when I was hearing about the 40th year of the Endangered Species Act. Again, the coverage that I would hear on mainstream media was it was there, and mostly I was finding it to be these really tiny little nuggets of sound bites. I was really pleased to find the media kit that your organization had put out where you were trying to flesh out what the purpose of the Endangered Species Act was when it was started, how it has maybe worked in very successful ways if you use certain measures, maybe where some of the gaps are. I would like you to take us a little bit back in time and help us understand why that got put in place, and what kind of measures you all took to look at it more objectively to help us all understand the meat of this conversation.
NG: Sure. Starting back at the very beginning, the Endangered Species Act was an incredibly strong law, perhaps the strongest law passed by any nation to protect biodiversity. The first line of the Act basically said various species of fish, wildlife, and plants in the United States have been rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth and development, untempered by adequate concern and conservation. That’s what the Act was seeking to address. They put in some very strong measures to do that.
Beginning in the mid 2000s, it became clear that the Act itself was very much under threat. There was a congressman named Richard Pombo from California who was the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee in 2004-2005. He was very aggressively attacking the Endangered Species Act. He had legislation that passed the House. We realized that the Act needed help, and we started looking into has the Act actually been successful?
One of their claims was that very few species have been actually removed from the Threatened and Endangered Species list or recovery. They tried to claim that there’s 1% success rate. We set out to look at that, and we found a couple things. One was – and this was not only our work, but the work of a number of scientists as well – the Act has been very effective at preventing extinction of species under its protection. Only 10 species to date have been removed from the list for extinction, and of those, eight were almost certainly extinct before they received the protection of the Act. From that measure, it’s more than 99% successful.
There’s over 1,500 species currently that are protected as threatened or endangered. Some scientists did some work looking at rates of extinction to estimate were it not for the Endangered Species Act how many species would we expect to have gone extinct, and estimated roughly 227 species would have been expected to go extinct were it not for the Endangered Species Act. By that measure of preventing extinction, the Act has been highly successful.
In terms of recovery, we started looking and basically trying to document cases where species have increased dramatically in abundance. We first looked at the Northeastern United States and determined that of species listed in the Northeastern United States, 90% were recovering in accordance with their recovery plans. We’ve since been looking at many more species, and we’ve literally identified hundreds of species that have seen tremendous recovery under the endangered species Act.
One example is the Black Footed Ferret, believed extinct up until the 1980s when they found a colony of Black Footed Ferrets. This was a species that is entirely dependent on Prairie Dogs. It eats Prairie Dogs, and it lives in Prairie Dog dens. With agricultural development and ranching, Prairie Dogs have been mercilessly hunted. The Ferret, which had once numbered maybe five million animals across a wide range, was nearly driven extinct.
They found this one colony, they started captive breeding them and reintroducing them, and today there are over 1,400 Black Footed Ferrets living in the wild. There’s still a way to go to recovery, but in a much more secure position than they were, because they were in fact believed extinct.
MF: Right in Beth’s and my backyard practically we’ve got endangered species living and thriving in our neighborhood. Bald Eagles are all along the river now, and they were in serious trouble.
BN: As a kid, I never saw them.
MF: Just the other day I was driving down Interstate 94 between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul and saw a Peregrine Falcon sitting on top of a freeway light eating a little bird.
NG: Exactly. Those are two great successes, both the Eagle and the Peregrine, which were both severely threatened by DDT. The elimination of the use of DDT was in big part because of the passage of the Endangered Species Act. Bald Eagle, of course, habitats were also a concern, so there was a great deal of habitat protection that occurred with the Bald Eagle as well. Both those species have actually been recovered and removed from the list of threatened and endangered species.
MF: The takeaway I’m getting, just to try to make what I heard into a sound bite of our own, it seems like there’s plenty of data to show the Endangered Species Act may have been even more successful at protecting the species that were included and protected by it than maybe even projected going into it, and that people who maybe want to discredit it are cherry picking specific pieces of data and may be looking at skewed data in order to try to justify taking it down. I don’t think anybody really expected by protecting a species that’s near extinction that they would miraculously come back overnight.
NG: Exactly. That’s part of the point. Now Richard Pombo is gone, but he’s been replaced by Doc Hastings from Washington State who basically mimics the same sound bites that it’s only 1% successful. That’s absolutely right, Mike. It took decades for many of these species to be driven to the brink of extinction, and in many cases it’s going to be a long road to recovery. It’s going to take decades. Many of the species that are currently on the list were listed in the last 20 years, and we wouldn’t expect them just in 10 or 20 years to be fully recovered and delisted. It’s going to take some time.
BN: I would like to ask a question. Maybe we can use the Black Footed Ferret as a species to have the conservation on. The fight about when an animal is going to be delisted or is near that point where people are wanting to have them removed, it seems like we’re having that fight a lot right now. From my layperson’s perspective, it feels like we’re in such a precarious state environmentally, I can't quite figure out how we can delist anything at this moment. Please, for a layperson like myself, explain what that means biologically or what brings a species to the level where we can justify delisting them, and what does that mean for them biologically? It’s almost two questions, I guess.
NG: It’s a complicated question. The way that it’s addressed under the Endangered Species Act is through development of recovery plans. Each species under the Endangered Species Act that’s listed as threatened or endangered gets a federal recovery plan, and that recovery plan identifies what is necessary to get the species to the point where it no longer needs protection.
It gets right to the definition of what a threatened and endangered species is. An endangered species is a species at risk of extinction in all or a significant portion of its range. There’s five threat categories that they look at – destruction of habitat, disease, overexploitation, whether there’s adequate regulations to protect it, or whether there’s other factors that threaten the species. It’s really a look at is the species at risk of extinction, not just everywhere, but in significant portions of its range, and are the threats alleviated enough that you could consider it recovered?
The Bald Eagle is a pretty good example because of DDT and habitat destruction it was reduced, extirpated from large portions of the U.S. It still hung on in Oregon and Washington pretty well and a few other places. They eliminated the use of DDT. They worked on protecting habitats, particularly nesting structures, and it spread across the U.S. It’s probably not up to the numbers that it once was, but it’s pretty darn secure across the whole country. It’s a good example of where you can pretty safely say that a species is recovered.
BN: We’re going to have to take a quick break again. When we come back, we’ll take this question a little further.
MF: We’re being joined for another segment by Noah Greenwald from the Center of Biological Diversity. One thing that I do want to celebrate about the Center for Biological Diversity – we’ve talked a lot about big, charismatic species that need protection and people really like to talk about them, but if you look at their logo for example, it’s a little frog. You’re all about protecting even the most humble among us. That’s really important from my perspective.
BN: The frog on their website sometimes winks at you. I’m just going to say that was charming!
We had left off with Noah where I had asked him a really big question, and he was doing his best to try and answer. We were talking about when an animal is delisted, what does that mean biologically? When can we really say that we have enough protections, the habitat is such that this is a sustainable population moving forward?
He said that the Bald Eagle is one that looks to be in pretty good shape right now. Recently up here in Minnesota we’ve seen the wolf taken off of the endangered species list. Hunts have opened up again – lots of controversy around that. Noah said he would be willing to talk a little bit about that scenario.
MF: If you look at the Bald Eagle here in Minnesota and beyond and you look at the Timber Wolf, we’re talking two radically different experiences. I never see Timber Wolves running around, and I see Eagles on a daily basis almost anymore. Do you see a difference, Noah, between the two species and their …
BN: Besides the obvious …
NG: I do. I do want to say that again, the wolf does highlight the success of the Endangered Species Act. When wolves were protected under the Act, you know they were hunted to near extinction. Minnesota and Isle Royale National Park were where they were left. They had been wiped out from the entire country except for just that little area of Northeastern Minnesota and Isle Royale. There were about 1,100 wolves. As wolves are reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park, there are roughly 4,000 to 5,000 wolves right now.
They have recovered to some degree. I think where we object that centers around that language – and this is why I mentioned a significant portion of range – wolves in the Midwest and the Northern Rockies occupy about 5% of their historic range, and a fraction of where they still could occur. There’s large areas – the Southern Rockies, California, the West Coast, the Northeast – where scientists have identified suitable wolf habitat, yet wolves aren’t there. There’s more to be done for the recovery of wolves.
In addition, the primary threat to wolves is just prejudice, basically. There’s a segment of the population that just hates wolves and is interested in persecuting them. You’ve seen this a bit more in the Northern Rockies than you have in the Midwest. Places like Idaho where for example just last week there was this derby in Salmon, Idaho where they had a contest to see who could kill the most wolves and coyotes.
MF: Dr. Michael Fox calls it “globophobia.”
NG: Exactly. The threat is still present, and they’re still not recovered over large areas. From our perspective, the job isn’t done, and wolves should remain protected.
BN: Is that largely because of ranching interests?
NG: It is. It’s primarily a conflict with ranchers and the prejudice within that community against wolves. There are a lot of efforts underway to work with ranchers to develop practices that protect their livestock from wolves without killing wolves, and those have shown to be fairly effective. It’s just a matter of getting past the prejudices and working with them to get those practices going. That’s part of the job that still needs to be done as well.
BN: I would say that the part of the job that I perceive still needs to happen is that I guess by necessity we tend to look at different animals, different species in isolation, and yet when you look at say the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, the ecosystem, there were just a lot of things that happened within the ecosystem that I would have to lay over in the positive column. It was a healthier ecosystem because the wolves came back, and yet we have to kind of segregate them out in order to get protections around them or to try and prove that there’s a need for protection. Do you understand what I’m saying?
NG: Yes, that’s exactly right. I think that the research that happened in Yellowstone after wolves were reintroduced really showed how important they are to the American landscape as an apex predator. They forced elk to move. They reduced elk numbers. That allowed streamside vegetation and the park to recover, which benefited songbirds, benefited fish, and benefited beavers. They also controlled coyote populations, which benefited foxes and pronghorns. It had this ripple effect where it benefited the whole ecosystem and a lot of individual species as well.
MF: I saw a study that was done showing all of the species that were present at a wolf kill of an elk weeks later. It was just unbelievable the amount of impact and how much diversity would come to this very localized location where wolves would kill an elk, leave part of the carcass, and there was just a banquet for a whole host of very humble species most people know nothing about.
BN: We are sadly nearing the end of our time with Noah. I would like to leave you the last word as we’re nearing the end of our time with you. One thing I would like to squeeze in though is your website. People can find the Center for Biological Diversity at www.biologicaldiversity.org. You are always welcoming of donations, I’m sure, and we would encourage folks to consider giving, because you are doing some really hard work on the front lines to protect species.
Could you leave us with some pithy thoughts about the work you do or the Endangered Species Act and what you’ve seen as you’ve been reviewing its efficacy?
NG: Sure. I think the one thing that’s clear is we’re going to need the Endangered Species Act more than ever in the coming years. With a growing human footprint, particularly in the U.S., we’ve seen an enormous explosion of energy development – right nearby you in North Dakota, for example, where they just had that terrible train accident.
BN: Yes; and a few oil spills, too.
NG: Exactly – a city-sized area of development. There’s increasing threats to habitat from all of that energy development, and then of course climate change is an ever present threat to species survival. There’s been some papers published, one in “Nature” in particular a few years ago that estimated we may lose as many as a third of the species on the planet because of climate change.
We really need the Endangered Species Act, and we really need to keep watching these species and work to save all that we can. That’s really what the Center for Biological Diversity is all about.
BN: There is an intrinsic value to the diversity, I firmly believe that. We just want to thank you again, Noah, for the work that you do at the Center for Biological Diversity and for the work of your colleagues. Again, you can find them at www.biologicaldiversity.org.
MF: I’ll just put a big “thank you” out there. It’s fun and easy to talk about the big, charismatic animals, but when you start talking about the little frogs and the insects, they’re all part of the critical biological diversity, and it’s great to have organizations that are out there working to protect them as well.