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

Protecting Hybrids

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Alston Chase questions the wisdom of including species on the endangered protection list which are genetic hybrids.


CURWOOD: When it comes to protecting endangered species, the US wrote the book, which many other countries have tried to follow. Still, few laws are as widely criticized as our Endangered Species Act. Conservationists say it doesn't do enough to protect threatened plants and animals. Others say the law favors obscure weeds and critters at the expense of business and property owners. And commentator Allston Chase says the Act's credibility has been undermined by a misguided attempt to protect animals which really aren't species at all.

CHASE: Americans have good reasons for saving endangered species. But is it also in the national interest to preserve the wild kingdom's hybrids as well? Last spring, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marines Fisheries Service quietly inserted into the Federal Register a proposed rule to save creatures that result from interbreeding between species. It would permit agency experts to list hybrids deemed to resemble a threatened or endangered ancestor, and the breeding of such so-called intercrosses in captivity to increase genetic variability of a species at risk. The first stipulation would, for example, permit listing wolf-coyote cross-breeds if experts determined they resemble endangered wolves. The second might allow breeding California condors to non-native Andean condors to enhance the survival of the former. Additionally, the change would grant authorities the right to eliminate hybrids that these oracles decree threatened listed species.

This renders the Endangered Species Act virtually meaningless. The ESA is meant to sustain endangered species, not endangered mongrels. The variety of possible intercrosses is almost unlimited, and deciding which ones to save is inevitably subjective. It's difficult enough rescuing the approximately 1,000 creatures currently listed as endangered or threatened. Keeping track of hybrids boggles the mind.

In fact, this proposal isn't about saving endangered creatures at all. It concerns rescuing endangered reputations. Recently, the Fish and Wildlife Service was stung by geneticists' revelations that the red wolf and Florida panther, both listed creatures, are hybrids, not genuine species. And last year the agency was criticized for releasing 8 Texas cougars into Florida, putatively to enhance the genetic diversity of the Florida panther. Both efforts, some biologists argued, were both illegal and harmful. Introducing non-native genes into the Florida panther would further weaken its claims to species-hood. But having spent millions to introduce these so-called species, authorities sought the rule change to retroactively sanction their efforts. Now this edict is in place it's Katie bar the door. If you thought Star Wars was too complicated for the human mind to design, wait till you see hybrid preservation in action.

CURWOOD: Allston Chase lives and writes in Montana. His most recent book is In A Dark Wood.



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