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As feral cats imperil wildlife, the trouble with the ESA 

Posted on March 18, 2013

Tim LesmeisterThe year was 1972 and Richard Nixon was president. It would be two more years before the Watergate scandal forced the only U.S. presidential resignation in history to occur. But in 1972 Nixon declared that conservation efforts in the United States aimed toward preventing the extinction of species were inadequate and called on the 93rd Congress to develop comprehensive endangered species legislation. Congress responded, and on December 28th, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 was signed into law.

The purpose of the ESA is to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. The Interior Department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service administer the ESA. The USFWS has primary responsibility for terrestrial and freshwater organisms, while the responsibilities of NMFS are mainly marine wildlife such as whales and anadromous fish such as salmon.

Under the ESA, species may be listed as either endangered or threatened. “Endangered” means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. “Threatened” means a species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. All species of plants and animals, except pest insects, are eligible for listing as endangered or threatened. For the purposes of the ESA, Congress defined species to include subspecies, varieties, and, for vertebrates, distinct population segments.

As of January 2013, the USFWS has listed 2,054 species worldwide as endangered or threatened, of which 1,436 occur in the United States.

That’s a lot of endangered and threatened species. You have to wonder why so many and what is being done to bring these flora and fauna back from the brink of extinction.

Eagles have made a comeback. So have wolves. Even the California condor population has improved. In 1987 there were only 22 condors left and they were all in captivity. Now there are over 200 living in the wild and almost that many still in captivity. The ESA must be working, yet every year the list grows.

One of the biggest problems with the ESA is that once a species is on the list it’s almost impossible to get it off because when the time comes to remove a species from the ESA the environmentalists find a friendly judge to make a ruling to keep the plant or animal firmly in place on the list. The wolf is a prime example. For years, state wildlife management departments tried to get the wolf delisted where the populations had grown to a point where they could be removed. For years, lawsuits by environmentalists stifled the process because these organizations were fearful the results of delisting would lead to hunting.

Just think of all the major infrastructure projects that have been scrapped due to lawsuits by groups using the ESA as their argument.

Going one step further. Why won’t the government organizations responsible for improving populations of endangered species take needed actions to get rid of the catalysts creating the problems?

Here’s a glaring example. I spend some of my winter months in Hawaii, which is considered the endangered species capital of the world. There is a species of bird, Palila, called the  Hawaiian honeycreeper, and it is threatened by feral cats in their protected, but limited habitat in the forests on Mauna Kea. Wildlife biologists have been monitoring the Palila population for years. Since 1998, 8 to 11 percent of monitored Palila nests were depredated annually by cats. This level of cat predation inhibits efforts to restore the Palila population.

Everywhere I went in Hawaii I saw free-range cats wandering. (Ted Williams has been writing about this for years, and his writing was in the news over the weekend. (Read Rob Drieslein's take on that here.) These feral cats, along with others, are responsible for the addition of many of the animal species on the ESA list and yet there are no rules or regs coming from those administering the ESA to get rid of the root cause of the problem. Why? Because they fear the repercussions of the cat lovers that would scream for their heads if they tried to kill all the feral cats.

So, does the ESA work? It’s better than nothing, but until those administering the program begin to stand up to the radicals and seriously go after known problem areas that have a solution then every year the list will grow.

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