October 29, 2004
by Alex A. Avery
The environmental movement is solidly behind John Kerry's candidacy for President. Some activists even claim that "in President George W. Bush's America, endangered species become extinct species."
Bobby Kennedy Jr. wrote recently in The Nation that "coho salmon are probably headed for extinction" under President Bush.
What's the reality of the two candidates on endangered species?
America and the world are actually doing much better in preserving wild species. The environmental community has effectively sensitized us to the danger of losing birds, animals, fish and ecosystems that we could never regain. Both governments and private organizations are moving to retain more critical wildlife habitat (the biggest key to species preservation).
When the UN Environmental Program recently issued a new World Atlas of Biodiversity, it noted that the world suffered only half as many extinctions of birds, mammals and fish during the last third of the 20th century as in the last third of the 19th century.
Modern technology is massively supporting wildlife conservation. The biggest reason for reduced extinctions is that high-powered seeds, nitrogen fertilizer and safety-tested pesticides have tripled world crop yields since 1960, saving millions of square miles of forest from the plow. The world is now feeding more than 6 billion people from the same cropland which used to be inadequate for feeding 2 billion.
Americans now treasure wetlands, in particular, more than did our forefathers, who tended to speak of "fetid swamps." That's in large part because we've used DDT and window screens to eradicate the malaria and yellow fever that mosquitoes spread all across America until 1950.
What about Mr. Kennedy's charge of salmon headed for extinction? The Columbia River this year had what biologists call the "second-largest salmon run since 1948." It turns out the salmon weren't being destroyed by logging and irrigated farming after all. Their numbers are governed, instead, by a natural 25-year cycle, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Do Mr. Kennedy and his Riverkeepers not understand this important reality?
Science also told us recently that the 'endangered" Preble's Jumping Mouse never existed. It was listed on the basis of a 1954 study of three skulls and 11 skeletons. That was acceptable evidence then. You didn't expect to find many specimens of a near-extinct creature.
Today, DNA testing tells us that Preble's mouse is actually part of the Bear Lodge jumping mouse species.
We spent tens of millions of dollars on building restrictions and denied land use permits along the western edge of the Great Plains while Bear Lodge mice were jumping and procreating abundantly.
One subdivision in Colorado Springs required cats to be kept on leashes-to protect a nonexistent species.
Twenty-five of the 31,000 species on America's Endangered List have been de-listed in the past 30 years. Seven of these recovered, including the brown pelican, peregrine falcon, Arctic peregrine, American alligator, Aleutian Canada goose, an Appalachian wildflower called the Robbins cinquefoil, and the Rydberg milk-vetch.
We may soon de-list the bald eagle, which is recovering nicely since we stopped paying bounties for shooting eagles. (We are now willing to overlook their competition for lambs and fish.)
Twelve species have been taken off the list because we learned they were not endangered in the first place, including the Umpqua River cutthroat trout and the Dismal Swamp Southeastern shrew.
Seven species, regrettably, went extinct, including the Tecopa pupfish and the Blue pike.
The affluent urban world of the 21st century will try to protect its species even more effectively in the future, no matter who is elected U.S. president in 2004. John Kerry will not single-handedly bring back Sampson's pearly mussel. George W. Bush will not go forth to destroy the last living Spineless Hedgehog cactus.
Nor is either man likely to stop the research and technology that enhance our newly cherished conservation power.
Alex Avery is director of research and education for the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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