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Citizens Protect Species Better

August 30, 2012

The US Government Endangered Species Act provide a little-known role for the public in protecting species. Any ordinary citizen or NGO can petition the US Fish & Wildlife service to protect a species they think is endangered.

So who does a better job–the citizen? Or the government professional? Surprise–a paper in Science says that ordinary citizens do a better job. In other words, if you feel a certain bird or fish is getting scarce, and it bothers you–it probably really is endangered, and would be a serious loss to the ecosystem. The article finds, “Citizen-initiated species (petitioned and/or litigated) face higher levels of biological threat than species identified by FWS (P = 0.0005).”

This is fascinating because it implies that the ordinary human esthetic sense of nature includes some kind of “honest signal” about natural loss. Humans may have evolved a sense of “loss detection” because in some way the loss of other species threatens our own.

So, if you’ve been putting off proposing a local endangered species–do it today.

  1. August 30, 2012 8:58 pm

    Interesting, Joan. But I’m not surprised–a person is always going to be more sensitive than a Service, or an Organization, or a Committee. Particularly if it concerns ones routine–if one walks to work, or to school, every day–or putters in ones garden, whatever–one will be hyper-sensitive to any alteration in that habitat.

    Fall always reminds me of the olden days, when autumn meant smudging and burning pretty much everywhere–that aroma of burning leaves was something I loved. I guess I’m just not as carbon-footprint oriented as I should be.

    Happy back to school, Joan

  2. heteromeles permalink
    September 1, 2012 7:44 pm

    Since I’m tangled in the middle of this mess, I’ll point out a couple of things.

    –Service personnel have been known to not only go to environmental groups, but actually to be on the boards of environmental groups. They’ve also been known to say “In my personal opinion, you really should sue us to get that species listed, but this is strictly off the record. I will now leave the room while you consider whether to sue or not.” After the suit has been won, these people have been known to express thanks that, due to the fact that they lost the suit, they can now do their jobs. Yes, I deleted the names to protect the innocent.

    –I’ve personally been told, in the field, (somewhat condensed) “thanks for all the work you’re doing to protect the reserve and clean up the trash and vandalism. Now, please leave so that I don’t have to give you a ticket for trespassing. Oh, and my boss denied your request to get a permit to be in here, because he’s decided on a blanket policy that nobody should be here. Furthermore, because you emailed me to report all the vandalism that’s happening, and since I’m responsible for this area (along with about 10,000 other acres), I got in trouble. Please don’t email me about these chronic problems again, because I want to keep my job.” I’ve been told variations of this by employees of several agencies.

    This is an area of intense frustration for current and previous agency personnel on the lower levels, and it might be one reason why I’ve never managed to get an agency job. I’m too well known as an environmentalist.

    Realize that much of the problem starts at the top. Ken Salazar, as Obama’s Secretary of the Interior, has been no improvement over the three interior secretaries under Bush, and the only reason many environmentalists I know are willing to vote for Obama is because Romney promises to be far worse. The problem goes down to the middle management levels, where many of the people who run the regional offices are hired or promoted due to how well they get along with the developers who donate big bucks to campaigns, rather than because they truly care about the environment. On the lower levels are some dedicated, knowledgeable, massively overworked people who do know what’s going on, and who often can’t get the resources or support they need to make a difference. I support the people at the lower levels.

    I should also point out that few legislatures, state or federal, are willing to list species as threatened or endangered without a lawsuit forcing them to do so. It’s sickening. In California, there are hundreds of species that could be listed. By law, they are even treated as equivalent to listed in land use analyses (California keeps official lists of these unlisted species), but the legislature refuses to act to give them official status unless they are forced to. If you want to support such lawsuits, join the Center for Biological Diversity ( They’re the point group in suing to protect species, and you can learn quite a lot by getting involved with them.

    My environmental group has a policy of using “elves” (experts who have to remain anonymous to protect their careers) to provide expert advice and help on dealing with these issues, and the people who sign protest documents, and even initiate lawsuits, aren’t always the people who wrote the opinions or got the facts together.

    • September 2, 2012 9:41 pm

      Thanks for the details; good to know!

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