Friday, March 10, 2006

Nearly 6000 scientists sign letter to protect the Endangered Species Act

The biologists letter to Congress is available on the Union of Concerned Scientists web site. UCS Site - Biologists Letter on ESA  The site also has a copy with the full list of signers, but be careful, it is a 150 page PDF file because of the number of signers.  That full file is available here. Biologists ESA Letter full list of signers.pdf  You can also click on a map to get a list of signers from your region.


A Letter from Biologists to the United States Senate
Concerning Science in the Endangered Species Act
January 2006

Dear Senators:

We are writing as biologists with expertise in a variety of scientific disciplines that concern

biological diversity and the loss of species. With the Senate considering policies that could have

long-lasting impacts on this nation's species diversity, we ask that you take into account scientific

principles that are crucial to species conservation. Biological diversity provides food, fiber,

medicines, clean water, and myriad other ecosystem products and services on which we depend

every day. If we look only at well-studied species groups, nearly one-third of native species in the

United States are at risk of disappearing.¹  Extinction is truly irreversible - once gone, individual

species and all of the services that they provide us cannot be brought back.

On December 8, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act ("ESA") with

the goal of conserving endangered and threatened species and the ecosystems on which they depend.

For species that have been listed and provided protection under the ESA, much of that purpose

has been achieved. According to an article in the September 30, 2005, edition of Science,

less than one percent of listed species have gone extinct since 1973, while 10 percent of candidate

species still waiting to be listed have suffered that fate. In addition to the hundreds of species that

the Act has protected from extinction, listing has contributed to population increases or the

stabilization of populations for at least 35 percent of listed species, and perhaps significantly more,

as well as the recovery of such signature species as the peregrine falcon. While complete recovery

has been realized for just two percent of species listed, given the precarious state of most species

when listed, this represents significant progress. 

One of the great strengths of the Endangered Species Act is its foundation in sound scientific

principles and its reliance on the best available science.² Unfortunately, recent legislative proposals

would critically weaken this foundation. For species conservation to continue, it is imperative both

that the scientific principles embodied in the Act are maintained, and that the Act is strengthened,

fully implemented, and adequately funded.   

Objective scientific information and methods should be used in listing species, subspecies, and

distinct population segments as endangered or threatened under the Act. While non-scientific factors

may appropriately be considered at points later in the process of protecting species, their use

in listing decisions is inconsistent with biologically defensible principles. Due to the fragile state

of many of those species that require the Act's protections, the listing process needs to proceed

as promptly as possible; otherwise, species will go extinct while waiting to be listed.

Habitat provides the unique food, shelter, and other complex requirements that each species

needs for its survival; habitat loss and degradation are the principal reasons for the decline of

most species at risk. Habitat protection is essential if species are to be conserved and

the goals of the ESA are to be met. The relationship between species, their habitats,

and the threats they face can be exceedingly complex. Therefore, the chances of species recovery

are maximized when habitat protection is based on sound scientific principles, and

when the determinations of the biological needs of at-risk species are scientifically well informed.

The obligation for federal agencies to consult with the appropriate wildlife agency and its biologists

when federal actions could affect habitat for listed species is an indispensable provision in the ESA.

It provides the means for science to inform decisions about the habitat-dependent

survival and recovery of species at-risk. The designation of critical habitat places

further obligations on the Federal government to, among other things, protect the habitat

essential to species recovery. It is far more effective, far easier, and far less expensive to

protect functioning natural habitats than it is to recreate them once they are gone.

Scientific Tools
The current Endangered Species Act standard of "best available science" has worked well

and has been flexible enough over time to accommodate evolving scientific information

and practice. Failure to keep the ESA open to the use of scientific information from the

best available research and monitoring, and to rely on impartial scientific experts, will

contribute to delays in species recovery and to species declines and extinctions. Critical

scientific information should not only include current empirical data, but also, for example,

historic habitat and population information, population surveys, habitat and population modeling,

and taxonomic and genetic studies. Use of scientific knowledge should not be hampered

by administrative requirements that overburden or slow the Act's implementation,

or by limiting consideration of certain types of scientific information. 

Recovery Plans
Recovery plans must be science-based documents that are developed with the input of scientists

and are responsive to new information. Recovery plans must be based on the

best possible information about the specific biology of each species, must identify threats

to each species and address what is needed to mitigate those threats,

and must predict how species are likely to respond to mitigation measures that may be adopted.

To be most effective, recovery plans need to incorporate scientific principles

of adaptive management, so they can be updated as new information on species

and their habitats becomes available. Changes to the ESA that would delay completion

of recovery plans, or provide for inflexible recovery goals that cannot be informed

by new or additional scientific knowledge, should be avoided.

Scientific Advances and New Issues 
The scientific community has contributed significant new information on imperiled species,

their uses of habitats, and threats to those resources since the ESA was first passed into law.

Serious, new, and as yet insufficiently addressed issues, such as global warming

and invasive species, have emerged as primary environmental concerns that affect the fate

of our native species diversity. We urge Congress to initiate thorough studies to consider

the foremost problems that drive species toward extinction. 

Losing species means losing the potential to solve some of humanity's most intractable problems,

including hunger and disease. The Endangered Species Act is more than just a law -

it is the ultimate safety net in our life support system. As Earth has changed and as science

has progressed since the Endangered Species Act was authorized in 1973, the ESA has served

our nation well, largely because of its flexibility and its solid foundation in science. It is crucial

to maintain these fundamental principles. The challenges of effective implementation of the Act

should not be interpreted to require substantive rewriting of this valuable, well-functioning piece

of legislation.

Thank you very much for taking our concerns into account. We are available to discuss any

and all of the issues we have raised.


Selected Signers

David Bain
University of Washington
Friday Harbor, WA

Ron Carroll
University of Georgia
Atlanta, GA

Paul Ehrlich
Stanford University
Stanford, CA

Thomas Eisner
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY

Melissa Grigione, Ph.D.
University of South Florida
Tampa, FL

Jane Lubchenco
Oregon State University
Corvallis, OR

Lynn Maguire
Duke University
Durham, NC

Gary Meffe
University of Florida
Gainesville, FL

Judy Meyer
University of Georgia
Athens, GA

Harold Mooney
Stanford University
Stanford, CA

Dennis Murphy
University of Nevada
Reno, NV

Barry Noon
Colorado State University
Ft. Collins, CO

Stuart Pimm
Duke University
Durham, NC

Gordon Orians
University of Washington
Seattle, WA

Peter Raven
Missouri Botanical Garden
St. Louis, MO

Michael Soule
University of California, Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, CA

John Terborgh
Duke University
Durham, NC

¹From NatureServe, an international network of scientists cataloguing biological diversity.
²The National Academy of Science’s National Research Council said in its seminal 1995 report, Science and the Endangered Species Act: "…there has been a good match between science and the ESA…[and] the ESA is based on sound scientific principles."

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