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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act

Air Date: Week of

The Endangered Species Act was landmark environmental legislation. Now, the law itself may be endangered. Host Bruce Gellerman explores the Harvard Museum of Natural History with Joe Roman, author of the new book “Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act.”



GELLERMAN: It’s just a short subway ride from our studios to a university you might have heard of.


GELLERMAN: And from the Square, it’s just a short walk across Harvard Yard to the university’s Museum of Natural History.


GELLERMAN: Built in 1859, it’s a venerable place filled with cabinets of curiosities and rows upon rows of display cases. There are animals preserved in bottles of formaldehyde, skeletons of marine mammals, and fierce predators stuffed and displayed, frozen in action. There are insects pinned and mounted, all perfectly organized and presented. More than 21 million specimens in all - some of the species are still with us, others are long gone. I recently explored Harvard’s Museum of Natural History with conservation biologist Joe Roman, author of the new book, “Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act.”

ROMAN: What I love about it is it’s almost like a museum of museums. There are so few natural history museums left that still show the individuals similar to the way they would have been shown in the 19th century.

GELLERMAN: So show me - do you got a favorite exhibit here?

ROMAN: Ah sure, there’s a couple of them.

GELLERMAN: Boy, look at this, we got a rhinoceros! What is this, this is a Sable Antelope…a Kori Bustard…look at these, these are incredible! African Civet!

ROMAN: It’s incredible - I mean, natural history museums like the one at Harvard have an incredibly important role in understanding biodiversity. People knew that there were different species, but really until they started collecting all these different specimens did they get an idea of how much diversity was within species and geographic variation.

GELLERMAN: Now when we say ‘species,’ what do we mean?

The first listed sepcies, the Snail Darter, a tiny fish associated with the Tellico Dam controversy. (Outdoor Alabama)

ROMAN: Species generally is defined as a population of animals or plants, or it can be bacteria as well, that interbreed. And so they’re very closely related and they’re limited in that they can reproduce with each other.

GELLERMAN: It wasn’t until, you write in your book, about 1812 that they really, kind of, understood that we were losing species.

ROMAN: That’s right, extinction’s a relatively new concept. Originally people had thought that species survived in different areas so you may lose a population here or individuals here, but they would be surviving in other areas.

GELLERMAN: This museum has 21 million specimens. How many different species are there - does anybody know?

ROMAN: In the millions. We’re not really sure - those numbers are still being discovered now. So we’re still adding new species everyday probably to the list. It’s ironic that right now, just as we’re losing species, we’re also seeing probably the greatest growth in the number of described species in science.

GELLERMAN: So how fast are we losing species?

ROMAN: That’s also controversial. Historically, the thought was - the average was about one out of every million species was lost every year. Now we’re seeing there are - we're thinking maybe it’s ten, maybe even 100 times faster than that. People have started to claim that this might be the sixth great mass extinction. In history, we have several mass extinction events - one of the most famous is at the end of the dinosaur era - and now we’re seeing a rapid die-off of lots of large vertebrates.

GELLERMAN: So die-offs are natural. Losing species is not an unnatural act.

ROMAN: That’s right. All species go extinct just like all organisms die. The concern is the accelerating rate that we’re seeing right now, largely because of human influence, either through habitat degradation or direct hunting or climate change.

GELLERMAN: When we try to protect animals, are we not upsetting the natural balance of things?

ROMAN: That’s a risk. Typically, what we’re trying to do is restore. So the goal is not to upset the balance but rather to restore systems so that they’re functioning naturally. And that can help people as well as the animals themselves. I mean, as you’ve mentioned, I do ecological economics, and what we look at is natural capital - that is, how can natural systems provide benefits to human society. That can be in the form of storm protection. One of the most obvious is tourism - think about whale-watching. The protection of whales, here in New England, has resulted in a $125 million dollar industry.

GELLERMAN: How do you conserve an animal this large in a habitat so vast as the ocean? How do you do that - can you do it?

ROMAN: You can, but what you have to do - it’s really about managing humans. For whales, basically, where they’re found is what we’re going to have to conserve. One of the problems is they feed in areas where there’s a lot of shipping traffic. So the ships are coming in, they’re hitting whales - lots of whales have propeller marks or have been killed. There was a very elegant solution: move the shipping channel to the area between the two areas where they’re most densely feeding. That has happened off of Boston and we’re starting to see some results, hopefully, of increase in these populations’ size as a result of that change.

Book Cover- ‘Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act’ (Barnes and Noble)

GELLERMAN: But when you have an animal, say, like the Blind Salamander that lives in Texas caves - you know, what’s the ecological value, what's the environmental value, what’s the cultural value of that animal?

ROMAN: Some people use the term ‘existence value,’ and that is how much are you willing to pay to keep these species around, would you be willing - and people do do that, people analyze that, that’s a start. Cultural value is also important, and we really don’t know which individual animal is going to be very important to humans. What are the species that are going to protect us? One species that we’ve seen an incredible decline recently is the little brown bat - used to be the most common bat in the system - has basically dropped out of the system. I don’t see any in my farmhouse in Vermont anymore. We don’t know yet. We know that it’s probably going to have an impact on agriculture.

GELLERMAN: Because it eats insects.

ROMAN: It eats insects, that’s right. And one study had put the value of bats in the United States at about three billion dollars a year in pest control alone.

GELLERMAN: But doesn’t that put us in the position of playing God - deciding which species to save and which, well, maybe it’s too expensive?

ROMAN: The goal of the Endangered Species Act is to protect all species, all native species within their environment. I don’t know if that’s playing God - I think that’s trying to control human rampant development, I guess, is one way, or irresponsible development of land.

GELLERMAN: The Endangered Species Act was passed in, what, 1973, and Richard Nixon signs it - overwhelmingly supported in Congress.

ROMAN: That’s right, 92 to nothing in the Senate, including Jesse Helms, Bob Dole signs it, Ted Stevens signs it - a lot of those guys changed their mind later on. Overwhelming support. Keep in mind it was a short list at that time - only a couple of hundred animals and they were mostly vertebrates. They were thinking they were protecting whales, for example, and wolves - sort of more charismatic species. It was only later that lots of other species started adding in and people started to say, ‘oh, wait a minute maybe this is more complicated than we thought.’

GELLERMAN: So really what we’re talking about when we’re talking about saving species is saving their habitats because without the habitat, no species.

ROMAN: That’s right, we don’t have an endangered ecosystem law. And often that’s the problem as the species are the surrogates for that. That was the case for the snail darter. A lot of people were really concerned about the river system that was going to be lost as much as the darter itself. Spotted owl is another example that really was a surrogate for old growth forest in the Pacific Northwest.

GELLERMAN: So in 1975, the snail darter comes along - a three-inch little fish, nobody really cared much about it until they decided to build the Tellico dam in Tennessee.

ROMAN: Actually, not only did no one care about it, no one knew about it. It was discovered right after the ESA was passed. So it was David Etnier out of the University of Tennessee who comes upon this while he was swimming, looking for other fish. He comes upon a new species. He was actually interested in the Tellico and interested in preventing it - there was a lot of local effort to stop the Tellico. He finds this new species that’s found nowhere else and he’s the world’s expert on this. He describes that at the same time that the dam is being completed. It could have been one of those stories where you just find a species, just in time, describe it, and it’s gone.

GELLERMAN: But it becomes the symbol - it becomes, actually, the tool, the weapon against the dam. Supreme Court winds up getting the case and they say, ‘you gotta stop the dam.’ Congress turns around and says, ‘nuh-uh, we want this dam.’

ROMAN: That’s right. So it was mostly local Tennessee politicians - Howard Baker…Al Gore, actually, was one of the people that votes for the dam - he’s a very strong supporter for the dam, he just gets into Congress at that time.

GELLERMAN: And ironically, Newt Gingrich votes against the dam!

ROMAN: That’s exactly right, so Newt Gingrich votes against it, but it passes. Actually at the time, Jimmy Carter vowed to veto any bill that was going to do an override - that was going to allow the dam to be built. But the story is at the time that he was negotiating, he wanted to get the Panama Canal treaty through. He was willing to negotiate with Baker and sign that bill in order to get his Panama Canal. The dam is closed in 1979, just after it’s signed.

GELLERMAN: It was a disaster.

ROMAN: And the species went extinct, that’s right.


GELLERMAN: So let’s go into the next hall.


GELLERMAN: Oh this is my favorite room here, this is awesome. Where are we? This is…

ROMAN: This is the Great Mammal Hall. And really, this is one of the classic - it looks like a classic 19th century museum. You’ve got the whales up above - there's a sperm whale, a fin whale in the middle, and North Atlantic right whale here. And then you’ve got a great diversity of ungulates, or hoofed mammals, down here, including some marsupials here representing Australia. And then we’ve got some primates here, including the great apes, the chimpanzee, the Eastern gorilla - oh, and here’s a human.

GELLERMAN: The skeletons.

ROMAN: That’s right, the skeletons. All the species in this cabinet are endangered, except, of course, humans, which are still at six billion strong.

GELLERMAN: So one day, could we be endangered?

ROMAN: Well keep in mind that all species do go extinct, just like all organisms die. And so yes, it doesn’t look - it's hard to fathom right now when we’re so populous. We’ve really become the dominant force on Earth, but yes, at some point, humans too will join the rest of creation.

GELLERMAN: Joe Roman is a professor of conservation biology at the University of Vermont and author of “Listed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act.”



Read an excerpt form the book.

Read a summary on the Endangered Species Act

Harvard Museum of Natural History


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