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America's act of hope.

When it comes to endangered species, there are no easy choices. Say you decide to donate a portion of your allowance to help protect one of the species pictured on this page. Which one would you choose?

The orangutan--a mammal--is big, smart, and closely related to humans. Maybe it should get your dollars. On the other hand, the Red Hills salamander is an amphibian, a class of organisms whose numbers are shrinking all over the world. Together with other amphibians, this bug-eating salamander helps keep America's insect population under control.

Tough choice, right? Now imagine choosing among thousands of species. Plants and animals. In the U.S. alone, at least 5,000 different species of organisms--everything from microbes to mammals--are in danger of going extinct. That is, members of these species are dying off faster than they can reproduce. As a result, the populations of these species have dwindled to dangerously low levels.

What's putting so many of America's species at risk? "Loss of habitat is the number one cause," says government biologist Susan Lawrence and many others. To make way for a growing nation, we've cleared away the wilderness from Maine to California. We've changed the land so drastically, in fact, that many species can no longer live on it.

INTO THE ACT

Serious situation? You bet. But not hopeless. In the past 20 years, American alligators, bald eagles, Maguire daisies, brown pelicans, gray whales, and Wright fishhook cacti have all made solid comebacks from the verge of extinction. These species, and hundreds of others like them, have been helped by the Endangered Species Act.

The act, established in 1973, sets up an official list of species on the brink. Harm any member of the 1,019 listed species--or the habitats in which they live and grow--and you can be thrown in jail. The act also requires the government to come up with a plan to restore each endangered species back to healthy numbers.

But achieving this is difficult indeed. One problem: There's not enough money to save everything. Last year, the government spent more than half of the act's $102 million budget on just twelve embattled species. For each of these species, there are scores of others in desperate need of help.

Why not just spend more on the act? The suggestion rubs a lot of people the wrong way. According to Representative James Hansen (R-UT), the government is already giving the act too much. In these tough economic times, he says, people should be our first priority.

CHOOSE OR LOSE?

How does the government choose which species to spend its allowance on? "We give top priority to the ones that face the greatest threat of extinction," says government botanist John Fay.

But degree of threat isn't the whole story. In some cases whole ecosystems--complex communities of microbes, plants, and animals--may depend on the well-being of just one species, says biologist E.O. Wilson. Remove one of these so-called keystone species and "many other species may decline to near extinction," he says. Should keystone species take priority?

The entire species-by-species approach is all wrong, say other scientists. Why waste limited resources on individual, all-but-extinct species like the Florida panther? We could use that money instead, says biologist Bill Reffalt, to preserve and restore America's remaining habitats. This approach, Reffalt and many others argue, might be our best bet for preserving America's vanishing biodiversity--the great variety of organisms that inhabit our land.

In the process, we might preserve one of Earth's greatest treasures. "Species diversity is one of our planet's most important and irreplaceable resources," says biologist Wilson. Future life forms will evolve from the ones that live right now. The more different types of life, the richer Earth's biological future will be.

THE FUTURE

Whatever their opinions, people from all sides of the debate agree that this is a crucial year for the act. Sometime in the next 12 months, Congress is supposed to decide whether to reauthorize (renew) it. Representatives and Senators will also discuss ways to change the act.

Whatever Congress decides, the government won't be alone in the fight to save endangered species. Everybody from huge corporations to everyday teens is joining in the fight.

Check out the rest of this issue for stories of what's being done, and how you can get in on the action.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Endangered Species Act
Author:Plaut, Josh
Publication:Science World
Date:Apr 16, 1993
Words:722
Previous Article:And now for some good news: we have made a difference.
Next Article:Green gold.
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