Endangered Species

How Science Helps Protect Endangered Species

Just as good business management helps non-profits save endangered animals, integrally- sound science is also essential for saving the animals. 

Legally, the decision of whether or not to add a threatened species to the Endangered Species Act list requires the use of “the best available science in a couple of key areas,” Jon Hunter, Policy Director of the Endangered Species Coalition, told me on Monday.  So the integrity of the science is very important. 

Polar Bear“The polar bear is a great example in the last couple of years, [–] the best science we have indicates that they are on a very bad path,” Jon explained.  The science that was needed pushed the boundaries of what has been traditionally considered good science.  “It looked further out and relies more on modeling and other predictions rather than a more traditional head count of how many exist and how many there were ten years ago.”

The US Geological Survey had to consider what the best climate models indicate will happen to the ice around the Arctic and Alaska.  The models told the USGS that “this is what will happen to the ice” and “from the ice, this is what will happen to the polar bears,” Jon explained.  “As a result, they could indicate that the polar bears were at serious risk, losing a lot of what they depend on for survival.”  This leads to the conclusion that there “clearly is a threat to the polar bear population being able to survive as a species.” 

spotted owl 2“The definition of a threatened species is one that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future,” Jon continued.  “So they clearly said, ‘the best science we have, the models, indicate that there will be a risk at some point in the foreseeable future’.”  This is a fundamentally different use of science from the traditional approach which examines how “this species is being killed today by this cause.”  But Jon indicates that science is changing towards this model, and adds that “it’s important that we really look at science in this form to say ‘what can we expect with this species?’ ”  Good wildlife conservation considers the future of a species.

Sometimes politics enters into the field and politicians question scientific findings.  For this reason, agencies are doing more peer reviews.  That way, the science has a higher likelihood of standing up in court, which is where debates or challenges often go.  If the science is not solid, cases can be thrown out of court, which can sometimes allow threats to endangered species.  Most often, court cases examine “whether or not all of the science was used, if conclusions are actually founded in other determinations, and also how a decision or a delisting decision prescribes exactly as the law requires,” Jon explained. 

While not all endangered species decisions go through courts, there are a large number of challenges.  While details of challenges vary with species, the challenges are launched by members of two major groups.  “Oftentimes if a species isn’t listed, environmental groups look at it to closely to see if it would make a good court challenge.  If it does get listed, opponents to endangered species protection may challenge it,” such as a logging or a mining company.  And regardless of what side the court challenge comes from, the integrity and quality of the science used to make the decision can make a large difference for or against a threatened species.

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Alison Wheatley

Alison Wheatley

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