Better Recovery Rates, Scientific Data Needed

Posted April 20, 2007 at 3:33pm

The Endangered Species Act needs to be improved and modernized, but the road to doing so has been long and difficult.

As one of the few Members still serving in Congress who voted to create the act back in 1973, I’ve always been a strong supporter of the original intent of the bill — restoring threatened and endangered species to healthy and sustainable population levels.

Since this vote 34 years ago, I have also authored or helped pass several other bills designed to help species suffering from seriously declining populations, including tigers, rhinos, African and Asian elephants, and neo-tropical migratory birds.

Rhinos and tigers are two species in particular need of continued U.S. assistance. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has noted that “rhinos and tigers remain among the most charismatic and some of the most endangered species on earth.” When we first passed the relief bills in 1994, the number of rhinoceroses living in the wild had fallen from 65,000 in 1970 to fewer than 16,000 animals. The five subspecies of tigers were facing an ever more perilous future. At the turn of the 20th century, there were more than 100,000 tigers living in the wild, but by 1994 there were fewer than 6,000 tigers — a decline of roughly 95 percent.

However, these bills have helped us and other nations improve and enhance international efforts to conserve these species. We’re taking some significant steps in this recovery and protection effort.

Here in the United States, we’ve had 34 years to review the Endangered Species Act and consider what’s working and what isn’t. Some problems have been identified that need to be corrected.

First, the recovery rates have been disappointing. While we understand differing time periods are required for recoveries, the success rate to date is only 1 percent of the 1,300 species that have been listed, and only 6 percent are considered to be “improving,” according the Fish and Wildlife Service.

In addition, the information used to list species as threatened or endangered has been inconsistent and, in some cases, questionable. The act relies on a standard of “best scientific data available” for regulatory decision-making. When we passed the law in 1973, Congress failed to adequately define what type of “science” would be used in the act. Over the years, we have seen that the “best available data” standard differs from species to species and is not always adequate or verifiable information. Some of it appears to be skewed to gain a designation.

Another major problem has been in the implementation of the act on private landowners. The unintended consequence of this has caused a tremendous amount of conflict with landowners and local communities alike. Supporters of modifying the act have long sought to address this by transforming this conflict into cooperation.

This Congress, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and I are working closely with a bipartisan coalition to pass legislation that will provide important incentives for private landowners to become cooperative participants in species recovery and habitat conservation programs.

The Endangered Species Recovery Act (H.R. 1422) will provide landowners with tax incentives if they agree to implement species recovery plans. To qualify for the tax incentives, the landowners must demonstrate that animals listed as endangered or threatened live or migrate through their property. In addition, the landowner must implement a government-approved recovery plan designed to reverse the decline of the listed species.

When we introduced the bill, Rep. Thompson stated: “Americans have always loved the great outdoors for our country’s diversity of fish and wildlife. We should do everything we can to provide incentives to landowners to help recover our endangered and threatened species. This bill will help the government create positive partnerships with landowners to implement effective recovery plans nationwide.”

Our legislation has been endorsed by dozens of wildlife conservation and sporting organizations, including the American Sportfishing Association, Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, Environmental Defense, National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition. In addition, American Farm Bureau, which represents farmers throughout the nation, also supports this bill.

I’m hopeful that this cooperative effort will lead to future bipartisan solutions for improving and enhancing our important goal of saving species from extinction.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) is the ranking member on the Natural Resources Committee.