Human beings are currently causing the greatest
mass extinction of species since the extinction of
the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. If present trends
continue one half of all species of life on earth will
be extinct in less than 100 years, as a result of
habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species,
and climate change.
Threats to the Ferret
Loss of habitat is the primary reason black-footed ferrets remain near the brink of extinction. Conversion of grasslands to agricultural uses, widespread prairie dog eradication programs and plague have reduced ferret habitat to less than 2 percent of what once existed. Remaining habitat is now fragmented, with prairie dog towns separated by great expanses of cropland and human development. Many other sensitive species such as burrowing owls, mountain plovers, golden eagles, swift fox, and ferruginous hawks are strongly linked to this habitat for their survival. Many of these species are following the ferret's fate, and may soon require further conservation efforts to ensure their survival.
The Prairie Ecosystem
The North American prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems on earth--perhaps even more endangered than the South American rain forest or the old growth forests of the American northwest. The grasslands of North America began to form about 20 million years ago, but in some areas, up to 99 percent of the prairie has been destroyed in just the last 125-150 years.
The survival of the black-footed ferret is inextricably linked to the survival of the prairie dog. Ferrets live in prairie dog burrows and feed on them almost exclusively.
As native prairie was converted to agricultural use, habitat was destroyed and humans poisoned prairie dogs out of fear that the rodents competed with their livestock for grass. As a result, the 247 million acres of grasslands once occupied by prairie dogs has been reduced by 98 percent. Besides continued poisoning, recreational shooting of prairie dogs is growing in popularity. With few regulations and no bag limits, shooters often kill hundreds of prairie dogs in a single day, drastically reducing their numbers. Finally, sylvatic plague--a disease spread by fleas to which prairie dogs have no natural immunity--is perhaps the greatest threat to their existence today.
Journal of Mammalogy, 89(1):87–96, 2008
The black-footed ferret is a small-bodied mustelid whose modern distribution is tightly associated with prairie dogs. Black-footed ferrets live in the burrow systems of prairie dogs, which are their primary prey . Systematic eradication of prairie dogs throughout the 20th century led to the near extinction of this highly endangered mustelid. Phylogenetic evidence suggests that black-footed ferrets evolved from their sister taxon, Mustela eversmanii, and
crossed the Beringian land bridge sometime between 2 million and 500,000 years ago (O’Brien et al. 1989). The earliest fossil evidence of black-footed ferrets in North America is mid-Pleistocene (~800,000 years ago—Anderson 2004; Owen et al. 2000). Wisconsinian fossil records (30,000–14,500 years ago) indicate the persistence of black-footed ferrets during the last glacial maximum, and they are described from southern Columbia Basin, west of the Continental Divide, as well as from the Great Plains east of the Continental Divide (Anderson et al. 1986). For species with modern distributions east and west of the Rocky Mountains, it appears that populations on either side of the Continental Divide were isolated from one another to the extent that they formed distinct genetic lineages.
FROM UNION OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS:
Evidence of Political Interference
Systematic Interference with Science at Interior Department Exposed
Recently obtained documents demonstrate that former Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald and other high-ranking political appointees within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) at the Department of the Interior have systematically distorted, manipulated, and misused the scientific process prescribed by the Endangered Species Act.
Science Regarding Endangered Species Act Manipulated
A wide array of scientists, government officials, and environmental groups has charged that the George W. Bush administration is engaged in a systematic attempt to weaken the Endangered Species Act.1 The administration has supported pending amendments before Congress that would make it harder to list threatened species, in particular by greatly limiting the use of population modeling.2 This technique is the most credible way to assess the likelihood that a small species population will survive in a given habitat.3
Perhaps most troubling, however, has been the way in which the Bush administration has suppressed or even attempted to distort the scientific findings of its own agencies to further its political agenda. These actions go well beyond a policy fight over the Endangered Species Act and represent a manipulation of the scientific underpinnings of the policy-making process itself.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Survey Summary
In 2005, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) distributed a 42-question survey to more than 1,400 USFWS biologists, ecologists, botanists and other science professionals working in Ecological Services field offices across the country to obtain their perceptions of scientific integrity within the USFWS, as well as political interference, resources and morale. Nearly 30 percent of the scientists returned completed surveys, despite agency directives not to reply—even on personal time.
Negative Effect on Wildlife Protection
While a majority of the scientists indicated that agency "scientific documents generally reflect technically rigorous evaluations of impacts to listed species and associated habitats," there is evidence that political intrusion has undermined the USFWS’s ability to fulfill its mission of protecting wildlife from extinction.
- Three out of four staff scientists and even higher proportions of scientist managers (78 percent) felt that the USFWS is not "acting effectively to maintain or enhance species and their habitats, so as to avoid possible listings under the Endangered Species Act;"
- For those species already listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA, more than two out of three scientists (69 percent) did not regard the USFWS as effective in its efforts toward recovery of those listed species;
- Nearly two out of three scientists (64 percent) did not feel the agency "is moving in the right direction;" and
- More than two-thirds of staff scientists (71 percent) and more than half of scientist managers (51 percent) did not "trust USFWS decision makers to make decisions that will protect species and habitats."
Oversight of Endangered Species Science
One of the great strengths of the Endangered Species Act is its foundation in robust scientific principles and its reliance on the best available science. But mounting evidence shows that political interference is undermining the implementation and enforcement of protections for imperiled species.
n May 2008 testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, UCS Senior Scientist Francesca Grifo described how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has distorted science and changed the way it uses scientific information to stack the deck against endangered and threatened species. Dr. Grifo’s testimony (oral, written) recommended several reforms needed to restore scientific integrity to the federal policy making process.
Union of Concerned Scientists to Congress: Politics Trumps Science at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
WASHINGTON (May 8, 2007)—The title of the May 9 House Resources Committee hearing poses a question: "Endangered Species Act Implementation: Science or Politics?"
The unfortunate answer is all too often "politics," according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
The hearing comes on the heels of a scathing Department of Interior Inspector General report that chastised former Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald for distorting U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) scientific documents to prevent the protection of several highly imperiled species. Just last week, MacDonald resigned her post.
Bush Administration FY06 Budget—Highlights and Lowlights
President George W. Bush recently released his comprehensive budget request for fiscal year 2006 (FY06). The administration has slightly reduced funding for the missile defense system and did provide significant cuts in new nuclear weapons requests while allowing for an increase in nuclear nonproliferation programs. And while the administration’s budget for renewable energy resources, clean vehicle tax credits, hydrogen energy research, and cleaner school buses address some of the nation’s energy and transportation needs, it fails to provide the long-term size and scope required to ensure a cleaner, more secure energy future. The Bush budget is also replete with a number of anti-environmental requests. Funding cuts for forest fire protections and endangered species, and a backdoor attempt to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, are just a few examples of regressive policy initiatives within this budget. UCS will oppose cuts to many of these programs and will seek to support policies for a safer, more sustainable world.
The proposed budget decreases overall funding for endangered species programs by $3 million. Among the cuts are funds for candidate species conservation, which are cut by 11 percent, and funds for recovery programs, which are cut by eight percent. The budget does propose a small increase in funding for listing and consultation. However, the listing budget of $18.1 million is still well short of the $153 million wildlife officials have said is needed to study the more than 250 species on the Fish & Wildlife Services' candidate list for endangered species.
Bush Administration FY07 Budget—Highlights and Lowlights
President George W. Bush recently released his comprehensive budget request for fiscal year 2007 (FY07). The FY07 request takes advantage of the budget deficit to cut a number of important environmental programs including several initiatives that would actually save taxpayers money. While there are a few positive developments, overall the budget fails to provide America with the means to build a cleaner, more secure future.
The proposed budget decreases overall funding for endangered species programs by $6.7 million. Though the budget calls for slight increases for listing and consultation, funding for endangered species recovery is $7.6 million below 2006 levels. The budget also cuts funding for national wildlife refuges, even as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is desperately in need of more funds to repair more than $200 million in damage to refuges from last year's Gulf Coast hurricanes.
Endangered species inaction a violation of ESASanta Fe, NM—On March 19, WildEarth Guardians filed suit in Washington, DC against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) seeking protection of 681 plant and animal species under the Endangered Species Act. The suit challenges the Service's failure to issue findings on two petitions filed by WildEarth Guardians last summer which requested protection of 681 critically imperiled species across twelve western states.
Yesterday, the Washington Post reported WildEarth Guardians' lawsuit and the broader problem of the Bush administration's low rate of listing endangered species. The Post story describes how the Bush administration has dismissed scientific advice and reversed long-standing policies in order to avoid protecting imperiled species.
"Tragically, 80% of the endangered species in the U.S. are not protected under the Endangered Species Act," stated Dr. Nicole Rosmarino of WildEarth Guardians. "Under the Bush administration, one of the biggest threats facing species on the brink of extinction in the U.S. is the very agency that is supposed to be protecting them — the Fish and Wildlife Service," continued Rosmarino.
WildEarth Guardians' petitions cite the current human-caused extinction crisis, with 6,000-9,000 species estimated at risk of extinction in the U.S., as a rationale for federal protection of all critically imperiled and imperiled species across the twelve western states in the Service's Southwestern and Mountain-Prairie Regions. Nationwide, only 1,351 U.S. species are federally protected (listed under the Endangered Species Act).Since '01, Guarding Species Is Harder
Endangered Listings Drop Under Bush
With little-noticed procedural and policy moves over several years, Bush administration officials have made it substantially more difficult to designate domestic animals and plants for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
President George W. Bush's administration has protected fewer animal and plant species under the Endangered Species Act than previous presidential administrations.Colorado's Black-footed Ferrets Saved from Drilling Threat
Review Board Says BLM Ignored Endangered Species Impacts From Oil and Gas Leases
DENVER — Based on a decision made public late last week, Colorado's endangered black-footed ferrets will be protected from oil and gas drilling — for now. The Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) own internal review board, the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA), overturned the BLM's May 2006 sale of oil and gas drilling leases in an area where endangered black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced in Colorado.
Despite the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) urging that ferret habitat be excluded from the lease sale, the BLM went ahead and sold drilling leases to the highest bidder. The ferrets, considered North America's most endangered species, were reintroduced to Colorado in 2001 and an active program to recover populations to self-sustaining levels is underway.
The IBLA found that the BLM broke the law by selling the leases "without any record evidence that it ever responded to or even considered FWS's views." The board found the action illegal because "an expert sister agency urged that leasing be deferred" in the ferret habitat, but BLM did not "explain its rejection of FWS' views. BLM again failed to consider new information". The decision cited the Service's warning that "Introduction of an additional disturbance factor at this critical stage in the establishment of ferrets in this area could prove to be detrimental."
"Many people have worked very hard to restore the ferret to Colorado, but even our most endangered wildlife has been offered up by the BLM in the rush to drill," said Erin Robertson of Center for Native Ecosystems. "Now the BLM must reconsider before allowing the home of Colorado's only black-footed ferrets to become a wellfield."
The Pleistocene-Holocene Event:
The Sixth Great Extinction
A few biologists—including geneticist Michael Soulè (who was later the founder of the Society for Conservation Biology) and Harvard's famed E. O. Wilson—put these worrisome anecdotes and bits of data together. They knew, through paleontological research by others, that in the 570 million years or so of the evolution of modern animal phyla there had been five great extinction events. The last happened 65 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous when dinosaurs became extinct. Wilson and company calculated that the current rate of extinction is one thousand to ten thousand times the background rate of extinction in the fossil record. That discovery hit with all the subtlety of an asteroid striking Earth: RIGHT NOW, TODAY, LIFE FACES THE SIXTH GREAT EXTINCTION EVENT IN EARTH HISTORY. The cause is just as unsettling and unprecedented: eating, manufacturing, traveling, warring, consuming, and breeding by six billion human beings. For the first time in the history of life on Earth, one species is killing countless others. For the first time, one species—Homo sapiens; that's us—is waging a war against Nature. The crisis we face is biological meltdown. Wilson (1992) warns that the proportion of species driven to extinction “might easily reach 20 percent by 2022 and rise as high as 50 percent or more thereafter.” Soulè (1980) has said that soon the only large mammals left will be those we consciously choose to protect; that, “[The twentieth] century will see the end of significant evolution of large plants and terrestrial vertebrates in the tropics.” He writes (1996), “The end of speciation for most large animals rivals the extinction crisis in significance for the future of living nature. As [Bruce Wilcox and I] said in 1980, ‘Death is one thing, an end to birth is something else.’”