- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 8, 2006

The American bald eagle went from being the symbol of the nation to a symbol of endangered species.

That the creature is flying high again is a testament to conservationists, but animal conservation experts warn that the eagle’s comeback is an exception, not the rule.

The 1973 Endangered Species Act, or ESA, helps protect animals and plants that, for a multitude of reasons, could be headed to extinction. It also seeks to shelter the ecosystems in which some of the creatures live. The act, overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, can declare a species either “endangered” or “threatened.”

A species is considered endangered if it is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A species is potentially threatened if it is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future.

As of May 2006, approximately 1,870 species were listed under the ESA. Of these species, approximately 1,300 are found in part or entirely in the United States and its waters; the remainder are foreign species.

The law may be relatively new, but conservation efforts have been going on since the early 1900s, says Cathy Schaeff, associate professor and chairwoman of American University’s Department of Biology.

Ms. Schaeff says animals face diminished numbers for a number of reasons, some less obvious than a person might think.

For the bald eagle, the chemical DDT had a direct impact. Used as a pesticide in some parts of the world, DDT caused the eggshells of birds to become thin, brittle and breakable.

Some animals that use sonar for communication can be hurt by an influx of movement from watercraft, such as jet skis, in a region, Ms. Schaeff says.

Humanity’s impact on wildlife can take even less direct paths, what she calls a “trickle-down effect.”

If wolves and deer aren’t checked by natural predators, “ticks become more rampant, and the effects of Lyme disease on other animals becomes more of a problem,” she says.

Sometimes the animals themselves, or their reproductive systems, make replenishing populations a chore.

The right whale, a type of baleen whale, “has been suffering from depletion, courtesy of commercial whaling lines for a very long time,” she says.

Its reproductive rate is very slow, with only one offspring every five to seven years, she explains.

“Just removing the problem doesn’t mean they’ll bounce back,” she says.

U.S.-based officials may work with the ESA, or they could consult with other conservation groups, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. The group serves as an international handshake between governments aimed at ensuring that cross-country trade in specimens of wild animals and plants doesn’t hurt their survival. Formed in the 1960s, CITES helps oversee this trade, which can be worth billions.

Karl Kranz, the general curator for the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, says it’s not realistic to think that all, or even the majority, of animals will come off the endangered list one day.

However, just being on such a list calls attention to a creature’s plight.

“It helps prioritize what you work on,” Mr. Kranz says. “One of the values of being listed is that it sometimes triggers a release of resources, either from [a nongovernmental organization] or a government.”

At the Maryland Zoo, experts are working with the Panamanian golden frog, which has been under assault by an incurable fungal disease that has diminished its population.

The fungus “has been spreading all over the world to a lot of frog species,” Mr. Kranz says. “We expect [the frog] to be extinct in the wild by the end of the year.”

While zoos like those in Baltimore help to propagate such species, others worry what will happen when the animals are reintroduced into the wild.

By breeding animals in captivity, “you take a slice out of the species’ genetic diversity. We try to preserve as much genetic diversity as possible, but we don’t know what’s important to the frog to have in the wild,” Mr. Kranz says.

Valerie Fellows, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Public Affairs, says some species face extinction merely by their locality.

“Some species … may be so endemic to a specific area that one major event could wipe out the population,” Mrs. Fellows says.

She cites the Puerto Rican parrot as one example of a creature with a small population living in an isolated area.

“If one hurricane comes, they could go extinct,” says Mrs. Fellows, who adds that her office is deluged with petitions to list various creatures as endangered.

David W. Inouye, a biology professor at the University of Maryland, worked with a team of researchers to study whether the slickspot peppergrass plant deserved endangered status.

“I was impressed with the care and thought the Fish and Wildlife Service put into this process,” Mr. Inouye says, adding that the effort to study the plant was the second in just two years.

“We were fortunate. In the intervening two years, quite a lot of research had been done on the species,” he says.

His work, and his time studying the slickspot peppergrass, left Mr. Inouye feeling optimistic about efforts to save more species. A decision on the plant’s fate with the ESA is forthcoming.

“There’s a lot being learned by conservation biologists,” he says. “Although there’s a lot of challenges, there’s now enough successes to point to.”

Ms. Schaeff says people, particularly those in urban areas, often think endangered species don’t matter much to them.

“In fact, many organisms play a huge role in how the environment is,” she says. People “don’t understand how they’re interconnected with each other and the environment. … If our environment doesn’t function well, we won’t have water purification processes.”

Mrs. Fellows agrees.

“Everything is connected in some way. … All the species in every ecosystem create a balanced ecosystem. There’s no telling how [a species becoming extinct] may affect a wide array of other species.”

Since the ESA took hold, 42 species have been removed from the list. Of those species, 17 were removed because of recovery efforts. The rest either went extinct (nine) or dropped off because of a listing error (16).

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