Thursday, May 11, 2006

Endangered Species Day

Today, May 11, has been designated by the U.S. Senate as Endangered Species Day (pdf). The day comes at a time when the Endangered Species Act and the protections they afford may themselves be endangered by Congressional legislation weakening its provisions and by non-enforcement of its regulations in the executive branch. (Oddly enough, one co-sponsor of the Senate resolution has led efforts to weaken the ESA.) The National Audubon Society has some suggestions for activities to honor the occasion.

This is a day to celebrate the successes of endangered species recovery. Since this is a birding blog, I will highlight two bird species that have had tremendous success under the ESA. Bald eagles were down to 417 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states by 1963; now there are 7,066 known nesting pairs in the lower 48. The species was downgraded to "threatened" status in 1995, and may soon be removed from the list entirely. Peregrine falcons had an even more severe population crash in eastern states in the mid twentieth century and likewise have rebounded to the point that they are no longer on the endangered list. In both cases, the recovery was assisted by a combination of habitat preservation, captive breeding programs and nesting site monitoring, and addressing environmental causes for decline - in this case the widespread use of DDT.

Peregrine Falcon With Chicks / Photo courtesy of USFWS

While these two species have recovered well, other endangered species have not been so lucky. According to the USFWS "boxscore," there are 567 animal species listed in the United States; only 434 have recovery plans, let alone plans that are implemented. The same story can be seen among endangered plants; 745 are listed and 630 have recovery plans. With the continuing cuts in funding for environmental agencies, one has to wonder about the outlook for the recovery programs. Will many of these be implemented?

In addition, many severely declining species have been denied listing under the endangered species act, and therefore denied protection. Of the birds undergoing the most rapid declines (according to Audubon), none is on the endangered species list (pdf), and therefore none is subject to the protections that might halt the decline. One such bird is the cerulean warbler, which I discussed on Tuesday. Other birds on the brink not listed under the ESA are the red knot and gunnison sage-grouse.

The USFWS breaks down the federally endangered and threatened species by state. I encourage you all to check out this resource and see what endangered species occur in your area. For the District of Columbia, the government lists seven animals and one plant:
One of these, the eskimo curlew, is extremely rare, if not extinct; the eastern puma and gray wolf do not occur within DC borders (or anywhere close by) at the current time. I am not sure of the status of the American burying beetle or small whorled pogonia; dwarf wedgemussel appears not to occur in D.C. any longer. The Hay's Spring Amphipod is endemic to Washington, D.C.; the only known population of this tiny crustacean breeds in an aquifer just south of the National Zoo. (See here for more on amphipods.) Bald eagles, of course, have become quite common in this area and are seen in D.C. frequently.

As birdwatchers and bird bloggers, we know that many of the species that we know and love are endangered or declining. We therefore should enjoy them while we have them and support measures to keep them around.