TCS Daily


Save Wildlife: Stop the Semantics Over 'Species'

By David Mastio - May 23, 2001 12:00 AM

Part One of Two
Click here to read Part Two


What do an Alaskan goose, a white-tailed deer from Washington state and a flat-bellied water snake from Michigan all have in common? They all are (or recently were) listed as endangered species but at the same time weren't actually endangered "species."

How is that possible, you might ask? Simply put, the Endangered Species Act protects a lot more than just species that are dying out in the wild. The definition in the law states that "endangered species" are "any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species or vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when mature."

The ESA might more accurately be called the ESSDPSA (the Endangered Species, Subspecies and Distinct Population Segment Act). It turns out that about a third of the "species" on the endangered species list aren't endangered species at all.

Which gets us back to those Alaskan geese and their relationship to the Bush administration. Upon entering office Bush Interior Secretary Gale Norton took the opportunity to announce with a bit of public fanfare that she was delisting the "Aleutian Canada Goose." The feathery waterfowl joined an illustrious handful of real success stories for the ESA and its enforcers at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Press coverage of the PR event dutifully referred to the goose as an "endangered species," but even the Fish & Wildlife press release admits that the goose is really a "subspecies."

So what does that mean? Well, the U.S. government spent 30 years and millions of dollars to keep non-endangered Canada Geese living on little rocky islands off Alaska. A colossal waste of money and effort.

Which gets us to those deer in Washington state and that Michigan snake - their stories are basically the same. The Columbia White Tail Deer, upon which the U.S. taxpayer has lavished millions, is genetically identical to the white tail deer that live on the other side of the Rocky Mountains and of which there are far too many. Genetic analysis also shows that most "endangered" Columbia White Tail Deer are actually half-breeds of the local non-endangered black tail deer. Believe it or not, there are more than 1,000 deer-car accidents in the U.S. daily - 150 alone in Michigan where the copperbelly water snake is "endangered" as well. Only, it's not even a subspecies, it's a "distinct population segment" of the yellowbelly water snake which is a subspecies of flatbelly water snake. Neither yellowbelly nor flatbelly water snakes are endangered and the scientists who helped decide the copperbelly is endangered have a hard time telling it from the yellowbellies that live in the exact same area.

In each case, a quirk of geography turned animals living on the edge of a species' normal range into a separate legal "species." Take notes here, because this is the difficult part: Animals living at the edge of a species' normal range are always rare and in danger of getting wiped out - that's why it's the edge of their range. There are some places where it's good for a particular kind of animal to live and there are some places it's not. Fewer animals live in places it's not easy for them to live.

There's little blame for the folks who wrote the law back in 1973 when Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter were still governors and our current president was still on the sauce. Back then scientists knew little about looking deep into the genetic code to see that animals that looked a little different because they grew up in different environments are actually all but identical at the genetic level. Today, after the O.J. Simpson trial and the semen-stained dress, every American is aware of the power of DNA. Inexplicably, however, Congress refuses to update the frozen-in-amber species definition it has placed into law.

So now this little federal code fossil leaves behind two delicious ironies for the liberals and environmentalists who defend its sanctity: We can't do much to save endangered species until we update the law. For the last 30 years, as the endangered species list has grown encrusted with efforts to save subspecies and distinct population segments, annual spending to save legal "species" has grown nearly every year. The catch is nearly every year the per-"species" spending has gone down. If the feds were to abandon efforts to save legal species that aren't actually species, the per-species spending could go up by about 50%, a boost big enough to make possible some progress.

In April, the Bush administration proposed curbs on lawsuits to force the federal government to act more quickly on endangered species. The reason the feds don't act more quickly is simple: Too little money spread over too many species. If environmentalists really cared about saving endangered species and thought that concentrated government spending and regulation could save them, then they'd back a means to focus efforts on saving actual biological species instead of "legal" species. Of course, their real agenda may be different, perhaps tying up as much land as possible in government red tape and damn the biological consequences.

The second wonderful irony of the fossilized species definition is its racist overtone. Last fall, a drumbeat of stories came out based on new research about the genetic differences between humans of different races. Typical of the headlines was this from The New York Times: "Do Races Differ? Not Really Genes show." The irony is that the level of difference between whites and blacks and Asians that those studies show is greater than the difference, for instance, between the Columbia White Tail Deer and its cousins in Colorado. Not to be too delicate, but according to the definition of species in the ESA, blacks and whites and Asians aren't just different races, they're different "species."

How's that for sick?
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