Endangered Species Act In Danger?

MR. SAM LITZINGER

12:33:32
Welcome back to "The Animal House." I'm Sam Litzinger. In the first of a series of tests threatening an uneasy truce between conservationists and industry officials, a small spiny reptile native to the American southwest could soon have a big affect on the way the U.S. government classified endangered species. Washington Post reporter, Juliet Eilperin, joins us now with the details. She's also the author of "Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks." We've talked to her about that book. Glad to have you back with us, Juliet.

MS. JULIET EILPERIN

12:33:57
I'm thrilled to be here.

LITZINGER

12:33:58
What's the history of the Endangered Species Act in a nutshell? Probably a lot of people have heard about it, but maybe don't know exactly what does it do?

EILPERIN

12:34:05
Absolutely. It's one of the strongest environmental laws that the U.S. has. It was signed into law in 1973, and essentially it calls upon the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make a scientific diagnosis of whether an animal or a plant is in danger of extinction. They can either be threatened or endangered. And if they do that, basically it triggers a whole series of protections that the federal government has to impose to try to essentially keep that species from disappearing all together.

LITZINGER

12:34:37
And now we'll talk more specifically about the Doons Sagebrush Lizard. What is it, where is it?

EILPERIN

12:34:44
It is a very small, light brown reptile that lives in New Mexico and Texas in an area called the Permian Basin, and so that's the animal that we're talking about that's been in trouble for a while and now the question is, should it actually make it on the list.

LITZINGER

12:35:00
If you can, kind of summarize the arguments from the two sides. Presumably you've got the people who say the lizard's got to be saved, and the other people say, who cares about a lizard. So where are we with this?

EILPERIN

12:35:12
Exactly. So you have environmentalist groups who have actually been pushing for 30 years to get this lizard on the endangered species list. They argue that 40 percent of the lizard's habitat has been removed or fragmented in some way by the ranching and the oil and gas operations, and so they say, look, it's just -- you gotta follow the law, and they reached a legal agreement last year with the Fish and Wildlife Service, and they say it deserves to be on the list, it's in trouble.

EILPERIN

12:35:40
And then on the other hand, you have particularly oil and gas interests as well as some ranchers who have challenged the science. They've hired their own scientists who have questioned whether that much of the habitat has been destroyed, and they say, as well as for example some of their allies in Congress, some prominent Republican lawmakers from New Mexico and Texas who say, you know, maybe the lizard's not doing as great as we'd want it to do, but it's gonna have a huge economic impact to protect it, and for that reason, we just think at this point it's not the right time to say that we need to step in and protect it.

LITZINGER

12:36:11
If the scientists are saying, okay, here are the facts of the matter and so on, and it becomes a political issue, how in the world could that ever get resolved?

EILPERIN

12:36:20
Right. I think that on a certain level that's true. I mean, the fact of the matter is they're going to make a decision and someone's gonna be angry about it and someone's probably either gonna sue on it, or is actually gonna try to take some congressional action to reverse what they're doing, so it's very difficult to make everybody happy, but there has been a genuine effort on both sides to see if there's a way to avert a listing of this lizard. The people are saying, look, we understand there's such significant consequences either way that maybe we could do something to kind of stave off that ultimate resolution.

EILPERIN

12:36:51
So they are scrambling to try to reconcile, frankly, the politics and the economics with the science, but that's a tall order. That's pretty tough to do.

LITZINGER

12:36:59
And I should ask, are there people that you've run into, particularly people in some authority who say, you know what, let's just get rid of the Endangered Species Act, it doesn't make any economic sense now, and it's time to get rid of it.

EILPERIN

12:37:08
Well, what's interesting is, I would say that there are several people who think we need to revamp the act. There aren't many people who think we should abolish it all together, and that, you know, that is interesting that we're actually at a moment where everyone will say we need this law, but certainly again when you talk to a number of members of Congress, particularly some of the most important Republicans on Capitol Hill, such as the Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Doc Hastings, or, you know, some of his colleagues.

EILPERIN

12:37:34
They will say we need to, you know, revamp it so that we can take into account, say, economic considerations. But the fact is, it's really a sort of Pandora's box scenario, which is that there has been genuine efforts to reform it over time, but it's become so politically contentious that at this moment, very few people are willing to reopen that question, because if you do, you know, you can't really predict what would happen in the wake of that.

LITZINGER

12:37:58
A fascinating story, as usual. We've been speaking with Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin who finds lots of fascinating stories. She's also the author of "Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks." Thanks very much for being with us in "The Animal House."

EILPERIN

12:38:11
Thank so much, Sam.

LITZINGER

12:38:19
Recently, two sons of real estate mogul Donald Trump became unwilling celebrity lightning rods for the global wildlife conservation movement after pictures from an African hunting trip last year depicted the Trump sons standing near the corpses of several threatened animals which they had reportedly killed. That development, along with proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act, has provided additional justification for conservationists and environmental groups who are in the midst of an unprecedented movement to rescue imperiled species around the world.

LITZINGER

12:38:48
One of the individuals in this effort is Jeff Flocken, Washington D.C. office director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Jeff is also co-author of a new book, "Wildlife Heroes: Forty Conservationists and the Animals They are Committed to Saving." Jeff, glad to have you with us here in "The Animal House."

MR. JEFF FLOCKEN

12:39:03
Thank you so much, Sam.

LITZINGER

12:39:04
I guess in some circles it's still considered cool to kill endangered species, eh?

FLOCKEN

12:39:10
Well, I was surprised as everyone else when I saw the pictures. They had one shot of Donald Jr. holding up a hacked off tail of an elephant, another one of standing beside a tree that had the crocodile corpse hanging from it. And the whole idea that to experience a foreign culture and adventure that Americans have to go out and conquer, kill, and take back, I think most people see that as something that's gone away. And to see two men actually participating in such a Colonialistic attitude with such little respect for foreign species and foreign lands is kind of shocking.

LITZINGER

12:39:42
Part of the problem with conservation efforts is people feel overwhelmed. They can't save everything, so sometimes they think they can't save anything. Part of what this book is doing is an effort to address that problem, how?

FLOCKEN

12:39:53
Exactly. My co-author, Julie Scardina, and I have been working in wildlife conservation for about 25 years, and it is overwhelming. You know, we've seen a marked decline just in that quarter century that we have been working of species. But at the same time, we've been lucky enough to go out and meet amazing people who have committed their lives and given passion to saving individual species or addressing threats, and we wanted to share that with other folks and get them to be inspired.

FLOCKEN

12:40:17
We had a lawyer in there who used polar bears to relate climate change to the decline of a species and thereby triggered the Endangered Species Act in a way that it had never been used before.

LITZINGER

12:40:25
And that's Cassie Siegel you're talking about. How do you make someone who reads the book, how do you encourage them to do something on their own?

FLOCKEN

12:40:33
I would start with saying the first thing they do to help wildlife is buying the book. My co-author and I are giving a hundred percent of all of our profits to wildlife conservation, all the wildlife here that we focus on, we're gonna be giving all of our money directly to them. We're not keeping any for ourselves. So if you buy the book, you're helping wildlife there. Then I would suggest really looking at your personal actions, finding what species that you relate to and seeing who's out there doing something to help them, what organizations, and supporting them financially if you can.

FLOCKEN

12:40:59
Many of these organizations use volunteers, and many of them are advocacy ones, make it very easy for you to weigh in on policy decisions.

LITZINGER

12:41:07
Is there a website you'd like to point people to?

FLOCKEN

12:41:10
Sure, www.wildlifeheroes.org.

LITZINGER

12:41:15
Jeff Flocken, Washington D.C. office director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. He's also co-author of the book "Wildlife Heroes: Forty Conservationists and the Animals They are Committed to Saving." Thank you very much for being with us in "The Animal House."

FLOCKEN

12:41:27
Thank you so much, Sam.

MS. SANDRA TSING-LOH

12:41:30
Forget GPS, how about CPS, caterpillar positioning strategies. This is Sandra Tsing-Loh with the Loh Down on Science. Scientists from the University of Exeter have found twig mimicking caterpillars rely on more than clever camouflage to outwit their feathered predators. They also use strategic positioning, focusing more on safety than finding food. The scientists wanted to prove the caterpillars were really thinking on their many feet, so they placed groups of the insects in an area with a choice of branches. Some had many twigs and little food, others, lots of food, but few real twigs.

MS. SANDRA TSING-LOH

12:42:04
During the day, the caterpillars hung out and blended in on the most twig-laden branches, even if food was scarce. At night, though, when birdy eyes can't see to hunt, caterpillars ditched the camouflage and moved to food-filled branches. Thus, the researchers say, the caterpillars aren't just blind mimics, they're using advanced habitat selection strategies, and the strategy works. The scientists noticed caterpillar hunting birds often don't bother checking many twig branches for their prey. Somehow they know it's a needle in a haystack proposition. You could call it survival of the twiggiest, or not.

NARRATOR

12:42:43
The Loh Down on Science online at lohdown.org. Produced by 89.3 KPCC and the California Institute of Technology, and made possible by TIAA CREF.

LITZINGER

12:42:58
Dr. Gary Weitzman is here with answers to your questions about pets next in "The Animal House."
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