Are we ready to start saving ugly species?
When it began compiling lists of threatened and endangered animals and plants more than 35 years ago, the U.S. government gave itself the same mandate as Noah's Ark: Save everything.
But in practice, the effort has often worked more like a velvet-rope nightclub: Glamour rules.
The furry, the feathered, the famous and the edible have dominated government funding for protected species, to the point that one subpopulation of threatened salmon gets more money than 956 other plants and animals combined.
Now, though, scientists say they're noticing a little more love for the unlovely.
They say plain-Jane plants, birds with fluorescent goiters and beetles that meet their mates at rat corpses are getting new money and respect -- finally valued as homely canaries inside treasured ecosystems.
But it still can be a hard sell. That's obvious here in California's Central Valley, where farmers are locked in a bitter fight with a glassy-eyed smelt.
"Over a stupid fish," said Mendota Mayor Robert Silva.
"A worthless little worm," Rep. George Radanovich (R-Calif.) called the fish, "that needs to go the way of the dinosaur."
Bias toward ‘charismatic megafauna’
The government lists 1,318 U.S. species as threatened or endangered, everything from the American alligator to the Florida ziziphus, a spiny shrub. By one measure, the federal government has already done something miraculous for them: It has kept them around. Only nine listed U.S. species have been declared extinct since the act was passed in 1973.
But the idea was not just to arrest species at the edge of disappearing: It was to bring them back. And by that measure, most of the success has gone to glamour species.
Only 15 U.S. species have officially been declared "recovered." They are three plants, two obscure tropical birds -- and 10 animals that would look good on a T-shirt. These include gray wolves, bald eagles, brown pelicans and the Yellowstone subpopulation of grizzly bears.
"There has been a very heavy bias toward 'charismatic megafauna' -- relatively large, well-known birds and mammals," a pair of Harvard researchers wrote in the 1990s. "All other classes of fauna, and all flora, have gotten extremely short shrift."
How short? The classic tale involves the California condor, a vulture so homely that its head looks as if it's on inside-out. In the 1980s, scientists captured the remaining few dozen condors, deloused them and began breeding them in captivity.
That was a great thing for the condors but a catastrophe for an even uglier species: the California condor louse. "It passed out of existence when they washed off the condors," said Nathan Yaussy, an ecology graduate student at Kent State University who blogs at http://endangered-ugly.blogspot.com.
No longer care about beauty
Today, the folks at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which cares for most protected species, say that charismatic animals may have had a leg up in the past -- but they no longer care about beauty. Instead, funding is supposed to be parceled out to those most at risk, and species at the center of legal fights.
"The program does not approach charismatic species as a top-tier" priority, said Bryan Arroyo, who heads the endangered species program. "We're not saying, you know, 'Here's wolves . . . or polar bears, or whatever, we're going to give more money to that.' "
But budget data show the beautiful and the edible are still coming out on top. The top 50 best-funded species include salmon, trout, sea turtles, eagles, bears -- and just one insect and no plants.
The Chinook salmon in the Snake River in the Northwest, whose needs include fish-friendly improvements at dams, was listed as receiving at least $69 million in help. Other fish in the ecosystem benefit, too, but that's still more money than the total spent on all insects, clams, snails, arachnids, corals, crustaceans and every species of threatened plant -- about 72 percent of the whole list.
Not the way nature works
Environmentalists say this isn't the way nature works.
"You can't disregard any of the pieces of the puzzle if you want to save all the pieces of the puzzle," said Trent Orr, an Oakland, Calif.-based lawyer with the environmental group Earthjustice. "You can't kind of cherry-pick and say, 'Oh, yes, let's have a world where there's charismatic mammals . . . but let's ignore the minnows.' "
There are small signs that people are listening.
The American burying beetle, which uses carcasses as nurseries for its young, gets three times the funding that it did in 1998. The orangefoot pimpleback, an endangered freshwater mussel, is getting six times what it did.
The Attwater's prairie chicken, a Gulf Coast species with a neck sac that looks like a radioactive gobstopper, is being bred in captivity at Texas zoos to keep it from disappearing.
And in Arkansas, a mud-brown mussel called a fatmucket has received new attention -- enough funding to track down new populations and sign on property owners to plant trees to filter runoff into streams.
"Mussels and the Arkansas fatmucket are definitely viewed in a different light, and they've definitely kind of gained a higher importance," said Joy DeClerk of the Nature Conservancy, who works with the animal. She said the attention seems to stem from a realization that mussels are a sensitive indicator of a river's overall health. "I'm cautiously hopeful," she said.
But there are good reasons not to be. Climate change is expected to put an even greater squeeze on endangered creatures. And scientists say many plants and animals have already been so harmed that they will probably never be "walkaway species," able to live on their own.
That means permanent human hand-holding, which is expensive. Kirtland's warbler, a colorful songbird that lives in Michigan forests, requires people to cut down trees to re-create its preferred young forest habitat, and to kill the cowbirds that invade its nests. Total cost: about $990,000 per year, at last count.
"Can we do that for the Furbish lousewort? I'm not sure," said Mike Scott, a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey, mentioning a Maine plant. "And can we do it for the two-thirds of the species that are plants or invertebrates? I think that's a tough sell."
Is ugly in?
In California, the charisma-less, inedible Delta smelt is testing the notion that ugly is in.
The smelt, a three-inch-long minnow look-alike, lives only in the San Francisco Bay and the brackish river delta that feeds it. That is terrible luck: This delta is at the intake pipe for California's vast plumbing system, which sucks water from the north and pipes it to cities in the south and farms in the middle.
The fish's population has dropped to less than 10 percent of its historic high because of urban pollution, hungry invasive species and pumps that whoosh them through to alien habitats, environmentalists say. They sued to leave more of the water -- and the smelt -- where they were.
"They are one of the best indicators of the overall ecological quality" of the delta ecosystem, which also hosts migrating salmon, said Christina Swanson, executive director of a California environmental group called the Bay Institute. "Whither smelt, so goes the rest of the system."
They won. In 2007, a federal judge said the smelt needed greater protection. In December, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued a plan that included a rule to cut back water pumping at certain times.
'We are losing everything'
In this arid town in the Central Valley, farmers say that the restrictions, combined with a drought, have contributed to unemployment that may be as high as 40 percent.
"Because there's no water, there's no work," said Juan Carlos Diaz, who can't even draw customers to his thrift store. And all because of a fish, he said in Spanish: "Because of it, we are losing everything."
The battle goes on in the courts and in Washington, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and California congressmen have sought to change the federal orders.
In the meantime, this month a group of California environmentalists held a day-long event in Oakland to make the point that fish in the delta and other nearby rivers have a value all their own.
They called it . . . SalmonAid.
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