Charismatic Megafauna

October 12, 1994|By EIRIK A. T. BLOM

BEL AIR — Lost in the distortions, lies, grandstanding and demagoguery that have replaced reasoned discourse in the fight over the reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act is the opportunity for a serious public debate over one of the most disappointing realities of endangered-species policy in this country.

According to recent studies, 55 percent of all state and federal money spent on endangered species goes to only 10 species, at least half of which are in no real danger of extinction. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of species for which we do not even have a recovery plan, many on the verge of disappearing forever.

Who gets the money, and why? The top 10 species are, in order of funding: bald eagle, northern spotted oil, Florida scrub jay, West Indian manatee, red-cockaded woodpecker, Florida panther, grizzly bear, least Bell's vireo, American peregrine falcon and whooping crane.

At first glance it looks like a diverse group, but its members

share certain characteristics. All are animals. Forty-three percent the species listed as endangered are plants, but they get only 3 percent of the funding. All are birds and mammals. Fourteen percent of the species listed are invertebrates, but they get only 2 percent of the funding. Most of the top ten are large. Most of them make good television. Half are predators. Most are beneficiaries of effective PR machines.

They are what biologists call ''charismatic megafauna,'' large species with good public images. They are species we feel connected to, species we have learned to like and respect. We do not like insects and crustaceans and lizards and rodents. Plants don't breathe or have cute babies, and frankly, we don't take them seriously. The result is that we are spending our money not on the species that most urgently need it, but on the ones we like, whether they need it or not. It may be good public relations, but it is bad biology.

How did we get in this fix? Politics and money (pardon the redundancy).

Despite the outrageous claims of opponents of the act, there is little money available for studying endangered species, and the competition for those dollars would make even a panther hesitate. With a limited amount of money and a growing pool of species in need, we are witnessing a new application of an old biological principle -- the survival of the fittest.

Biologists, researchers, college professors, graduate students, consultants and a startling variety of public and private organizations are fighting for a share of the money. They do so by writing grant proposals and lobbying the state and federal agencies responsible for disbursing the funds. Those whose grants are approved get jobs, degrees, security, status and income. They understand all too well that the agencies administering the grants are responsive to political pressure. Putting bald eagle or peregrine falcon or manatee or grizzly bear in the proposal increases the chance of being approved. Lousewort and chubb and skink do not.

It is not entirely the fault of the individuals assessing the merits of individual grant proposals. Typically they are scientists or career government officials with backgrounds in wildlife management and related fields. They answer, however, to officials, elected or appointed, who perceive their future as hostage to public perception and political maneuvering. Those politically vulnerable officials live in terror of having to defend the expenditure of tens of thousands of dollars on an insect or a weed, no matter how critically endangered. They know there will be little criticism of expenditures on ''charismatic megafauna.'' Most of the public supports such efforts.

Do not look for a villain. The intentions of almost everyone involved are good, or as good as they are allowed to be when politics has oversight on science. There is no deliberate attempt to subvert endangered-species policy, but the high ideals and clear objectives we embraced when we created laws to protect endangered species have been mislaid during implementation.

This is the debate we ought to be having: Should endangered-species policy reflect public opinion and prejudice, no matter how ill-informed? Should politicians micro-manage practical science? Should charismatic megafauna matter more than other species? Are we accomplishing what we set out to do? Do we really want to?

Eirik A.T. Blom is a biological consultant.

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