In the past three decades very few endangered species have been restored to viable populations. The black footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) was believed to be the most endangered mammal in the united states. It is a small mink sized carnivore of the Great plains and intermountain basins
The ferrets appear to be obligatory predators on the prairie dogs and once occupied a range essentially identical to that of the prairie dogs. They prey on them and also use their burrows for shelter and nesting. The prairie dogs are considered agricultural pests and competitors with livestock since white settlement first began in the American west. Large scale rodent control programs were implemented by the state and federal governments. They drastically reduced the population of prairie dogs (and other species related to the prairie dog ecosystem) through trapping, gassing and poisoning. These poisoning programs were considered a major cause of the ferret’s demise. But, the main cause was the loss of the ferret’s prey base and appropriate habitat. Their remaining habitat was fragmented thus leaving the ferret population vulnerable to extinction from various causes including inability to find mates, inbreeding depression, environmental events, and disease of ferrets and their prey.
The ferrets were believed to be extinct in 1974, but in 1981 a ferret was discovered in Meeteetsee, Wyoming when a ranch dog killed an unusual animal eating from its food dish and the rancher took the carcass to a knowledgeable taxidermist. This was viewed as a rare chance to recover the species. In 1985, a catastrophic disease struck the small ferret population, and most remaining animals were taken into captivity. Captive breeding was initiated, and reintroduction into the wild from the captive population began in 1991.
The ferret is just one of more than 900 species listed under the Endangered Species act as either threatened or endangered. Over three thousand more species wait on a list of candidates for such status, but in the 1980s over thirty-four species went extinct while on the waiting list (Cohn, 1993). Is the ferret program representative of the national effort to recover species?
United States policy on endangered species, including the ferret and hundreds of other plants and animals, is codified in the 1973 Endangered Species act (ESA ,as amended, U.S. Congress 1983, Bean 1991) . This piece of legislation sets a national goal the prevention of any further extinction and the restoration of species currently threatened with extinction. The ESA is a highly popular piece of legislature because no one would advocate the killing of an entire species. But the simple goal of saving a species cloaks a complicated process. The ferret case is a good illustration of how the ESA is actually outfitted, how and state officials and others tackle the complex work of restoring species, and how problems come about in nearly all recovery plans. In short, the ferret rescue is a measure of how the ESA really works.
After finding the small population in Wyoming, in 1981, one might expect a well led and smoothly coordinated recovery effort to have been quickly organized to save a species that had been recognized as America’s most endangered mammal. Many universities, conservation organizations, state and federal agencies, and local people were willing to help. Collectively they command substantial resources, not only in terms of money: national and international expertise on population genetics and small population management, experienced field researchers, tested breeding facilities, and support staffs from major zoos. All that was needed for the ferrets to be restored swiftly, professionally, and efficiently was a means to bring the talent together in a productive well organized program.
Under the ESA, the task of organizing recovery efforts is the responsibility of the federal government acting through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. Federal officials had numerous options open to them at the start of the ferret program, one of which was to function like administrators of a large hospital, pulling together a world-class professional team, supporting the necessary work with adequate funding, equipment and facilities, and relying on the team’s judgment to bring about the patient’s recovery. But this model was not selected.
The ferret program was organized and operated very differently. Section 6 of the ESA requires that states be involved to the "maximum extent practicable." Early in 1982, the federal government turned the main responsibility for ferret restoration over to the state of Wyoming. Almost immediately, problems began to emerge.
Through a formal resolution, the American Society of mammologists (1986:786) urged "the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wyoming Fish and Game department, and other state wildlife departments, and numerous and numerous interested conservation groups to make broader recovery efforts" than those exhibited by the current program.
Miller, Reading, and Forest (Miller et al.1996:208) identify the FWS as the national agent responsible for maintaining professional restoration programs. "It is our contention," they write, "that Region 6, of the FWS, failed to make the ferret recovery a national program. It may have been easiest for Region 6 to acuiesence to Wyoming’s agenda in the short term, but the strategy has probably impaired the recovery in the long run. People, or agencies, in a position to improve conservation should not simply throw money at a problem, but invest in time and attention as well."
The Wyoming Game and Fish department was interested in doing whatever was necessary to insure that the ferrets be returned to the wild in Wyoming first, whether or not Wyoming was the best place to introduce them. There could have been sites in other states which were better suited for ferret reintroduction, but the jealousy of the Wyoming Game and Fish department prevents them from considering such an alternative. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (1990) concluded that state-level concerns had taken precedence over national recovery issues.
The Wilderness Society concluded that of the 495 species listed in 1988, only about 16 (3.2 percent) are recovering. Another 18 listed species (3.6 percent) may have already been extinct. This is a record that fails to demonstrate the basic promises of the act. The General Accounting Office (1992) added that of sixteen species removed from the list, five were recovered, seven were extinct, and four were reclassified because of misinformation.
Two federal audits of the ESA implementation have been conducted. Reviews of the FWS endangered species program and found that the federal government did not maintain centralized information needed to determine how well the overall program was operating. Required recovery plans have not been developed and approved for many species. In 16 recovery plans that were investigated in depth, nearly half of the tasks listed had not been undertaken even though the plans had been approved, on average, more than four years earlier. Fws officials attributed this to shortage of funds, "the inspector general of the Interior department has lambasted his federal colleagues at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, charging that they may be sending species to extinction" (Holden1990).
The destruction of other life forms because of the actions of people is a problem with profound biological, ecological, economic, and ethical dimensions. We must assume that a healthy biosphere is in the common interest of humanity. Appreciation of the fundamental importance and far-sightedness of the Endangered Species Act and other biodiversity protection policies has grown over the last two decades, but that has neither prevented nor appreciably slowed the extinction crisis. Around the globe, the problem of extinction is extreme and growing, with perhaps scores of species disappearing everyday.
The ESA is potentially a powerful tool to better the extinction crisis, and in many ways has served as a global model. But despite its value both substantively and symbolically, there are problems with it, as both the biological and political trends of the past years attest. Implementation has fallen short of promise. Protecting species under the ESA is a long , complex process. Once species are recognized as deserving of protection and are listed, conservation programs must be designed, approved, and then implemented. Almost four thousand species in the United States now wait to be afforded the basic protections of the ESA; several hundred, many of them plants may already be extinct. Beyond the listing process, there are innumerable steps, activities and processes that make up the ESA implementation. The extinction problem in the U.S. and the world is apparently growing faster than practical policy responses can be generated to stop it.
The black footed ferret was a good example for showing how there are problems with the conservation process and limitations of conventional approaches. The ferret restoration program was fraught with problems, which has added to its notoriety in the public eye and the scientific and conservation communities.
If we are to improve the policy-making process for conserving biodiversity, we must acknowledge the problem openly, honestly, and realistically. We must turn our knowledge of saving species and take turn it into more effective, more efficient conservation gains. In other words, we must reconstruct the endangered species recovery process.
American Society of Mammologists. 1986. Recovery and restoration of the black footed ferret. Journal of
Bean, M.J.1983. The evolution of national wildlife law. Prager, New York.
Cohn, J.P.1993. Defenders of biodiversity. Government executive national journal, April:18-22
General accounting office. 1988. Endangered species: Management improvements could enhance recovery programs. GAO/RCED 89-5. GPO, Washington.
Holden, C.1990. Ecology hero in the interior department. Science 250:620-621.
Miller, B.J., R. Reading, C. Conway, J.A. Jackson, M.A. Hutchins, N. Snyder, S. Forest, J. Frazier, and S. Derricson. 1994. Improving endangered species programs: Avoiding organizational pitfalls, tapping the resources, and adding accountability. Environmental Management 18:637-645.
Reffault, W. 1991. The endangered species lists: Chronicles of extinction? P.77-75. Island Press, Washington.
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