Score one for citizen scientists: A new study in†Science has found that citizen involvement is key in protecting endangered species. As co-author Berry Brosi, a biologist and professor of environmental studies at Emory University, says in Science Daily, “citizens, on average, do a better job of picking species that are threatened than does the Fish and Wildlife Service” (FWS).
The US Endangered Species Act (ESA) became law about 40 years ago and has always been controversial, especially for its provision that citizens can petition to list any species that is unprotected and also sue the FWS to challenge any species listed. As Science Daily notes, critics say that this provision has meant that the FWS “wastes time and resources processing the stream of citizen requests,” so that its energies are diverted from truly vulnerable species. Other “detractors” note that “political interests, such as the intention to halt development” are behind many of the lawsuits, Ars Technica observes.
The†Science study examined†data for 913 domestic and freshwater species listed as “threatened” or “endangered” under the ESA from 1986 on. The analysis revealed†that species proposed as endangered by citizen petitions or lawsuits actually faced more biological threats than those presented in federal reports.
Citizens, both scientists and non-profit groups, may simply have “more specialized knowledge about the local habitats and subspecies” than the FWS,††says Ars Technica.†Study co-author Eric Biber, a University of California, Berkeley School of Law professor specializing in environmental law, confirms this point in Science Daily:
“There are some 100,000 species of plants and animals in North America, and asking one federal agency to stay on top of that is tough If there were restrictions on the number of citizen-initiated petitions being reviewed, the government would lose a whole universe of people providing high-quality information about species at risk, and it is likely that many species would be left unprotected.”
Ars Technica reminds us that, without the efforts of citizens, polar bears — who have “come to represent the plight of endangered species everywhere” †– would not have been listed as threatened under the ESA.
Biber’s and Brosi’s study did find that, while “listings resulting from citizen-initiated petitions are more likely to pose conflicts with development,” these species were more threatened, on average, than those in FWS-sponsored petitions. One example is the†Mojave Desert population of the Desert Tortoise, Gopherus agassizii; the FWS turned down a petition to list it†but that decision has been reversed. In fact, the Desert Tortoise, whose population is thought to have declined by more than 90 percent during the past twenty years in the face of urban and suburban development, is now listed in the ESA’s highest threat category.
Brosi compares citizen petitions for endangered species to crowdsourcing, saying that “it’s†sort of like crowdsourcing what species need to be protected.”
So kudos to democracy at work to preserve threatened and endangered species. Let’s keep up the pressure to protect them.
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Photo of the Desert Tortoise by the USFWS Pacific Southwest Region