Bush Administration: there is no extinction crisis, species should be allowed to go extinct, listing imperiled species is a low priority

The Bush administration's two top appointees in charge of the Endangered Species Act have asserted that 1) there is no extinction crisis, 2) species should be allowed to go extinct, 3) most species facing extinction should not be put on the endangered species list, 4) placing species on the endangered list is not an administration priority, and 5) the 260 imperiled species on the current federal waiting list (i.e. the "candidate" list) do not need to be put on the endangered list.

Prior to her appointment as Secretary of Interior, Gale Norton was the Attorney General of Colorado and a board member of the Mountain States Legal Foundation. Under her leadership, the latter aggressively attempted to prevent many species from being put on the endangered list. As Attorney General, she filed a legal brief arguing that species that occur within a single state should not be protected under the Endangered Species Act. This position, which the court rejected, would have removed 1,051 plants and animals from the endangered species list. This is 77% of all species currently listed.

Assistant Secretary of Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Craig Manson told the Los Angeles Times on November 14, 2003 that the interests of developers should often prevail over endangered species. Nor should the Endangered Species Act be invoked to save species from extinction: "If we are saying that the loss of species in and of itself is inherently bad - I don't think we know enough about how the world works to say that." That same day he told participants at an endangered species conference in Santa Barbara that placing species on the endangered species list was not a priority of the Bush administration and that the administration will not significantly increase the budget for doing so.

In an interview with Grist Magazine on April 15, 2005 Manson affirmed that the Bush administration has placed a low priority on listing endangered species, that it does not believe all species should be save from extinction, and that it does not believe there is an extinction crisis:

Grist: You made a comment at a Santa Barbara conference that riled a lot of environmentalists, in which you called into question the inherent harm of species extinction: "If we are saying that the loss of species in and of itself is inherently bad," you said, "I don't think we know enough about how the world works to say that." Can you explain this comment and what you think may be the sunny side of species extinction?

Manson: The reaction to that comment illustrates something about the character of the science that some people would have us use -- which is, "Don't question the orthodoxy of anything." I mean, do we know? The orthodoxy is that every species has a place in the ecosystem and therefore the loss of any species diminishes us in some negative way. That's the orthodoxy. Now that certainly has validity with respect to most things, maybe almost everything. But it's a presumptuous thing to suggest that we know for sure that that is a fact. And it sort of flies in the face of Darwinian science.

Grist: How so?

Manson: Darwinian science suggests that some species are lost because they are unable to adapt to changing circumstances. And those changing circumstances may be natural circumstances, they may not be artificial or human-caused. If that's the case, then we don't know whether to label the loss of that species as good or bad as a scientific matter. That does not mean that we shouldn't enforce the Endangered Species Act. Some people made a leap in logic from that discussion to, "Let's not enforce the ESA." That's fallacious to make that sort of leap of logic.

Grist: There is vast and alarming evidence that the rate of extinction has escalated tremendously in the last several decades. We often hear statistics along the lines of: More species have been lost in the last several decades than have been lost cumulatively in the last several millennia. As the man responsible for species protection in the United States, can you explain why we "don't know enough" to deduce that this is linked to human activity and is an unnatural and potentially catastrophic trend?

Manson: There are statistics like that out there. I don't know what those statistics mean.

Grist: As in, you don't know whether they are well-founded?

Manson: Well, let's assume for a moment that you had a study that said more species have been lost in the last 50 years than in the preceding 10,000 years. And that's all the study tells us -- somehow we are able to figure that out. Well, what does that mean? I don't know what that means.

Grist: So you don't know whether the cause of that phenomenon is natural or human-made?

Manson: Right. Now, if there's a study out there that tells me the causes, then that gives some context. But people throw around numbers like that as if the numbers themselves have inherent meaning. And they don't without context.

Grist: Don't studies show that the rate of extinction directly correlates to the rate of industrial development and population growth?

Manson: The most that one could say on that evidence is that there may be some connection. And it is a logical fallacy to suggest that because two things happen concurrently that they are necessarily related, without further evidence.

I was at a congressional hearing on the Endangered Species Act and a congressman said to me, "My 15-year-old son is sitting out in the audience today and can you assure me that no species will go extinct during my son's lifetime?" And he was serious! [Laughter.] And I said, "No! I can't assure you of that. There are going to be species that go extinct in your son's lifetime and maybe hundreds of thousands of them."

Grist: Environmentalists have been very concerned about the question of listing new species under the ESA -- that FWS is de-emphasizing the need to identify new species that are going extinct. Can you explain this shift in focus?

Manson: The emphasis on listing is shortsighted. It misses the mark. That supposes that the idea behind the statute is to see how many species we can get on the list -- and it's not. The purpose of the statute is to provide for the recovery of species which have declined to such a point that they have become listed. It's not about listing, and it's not about prohibiting things that are otherwise lawful. It's about recovery of species.

Grist: There are some 260 species on the ESA candidate list that are presumed to be on their way out. What do we do about those we've already identified as threatened?

Manson: What needs to be done with those is they need to benefit from enhanced habitat restoration, because habitat loss is probably the key factor in the decline of many species. Do they necessarily need to be listed to get the benefits of enhanced habitat restoration? Not necessarily. And again, the focus is not on how many of those we need to move onto the list of threatened or endangered species, but how do we move them away from the status that they are currently in now as candidate species.