Citizen Scientists and Endangered Species

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Ars Technica has a fascinating piece on a process by which citizens can petition to have animals facing extinction classifie as endangered species. What is particularly interesting is that citizen scientists have been actively doing this for some time, and there is now enough of a track record to evaluate their effectiveness in identifying and protecting endangered or threatened species:

Surprisingly, despite the symbolic role that this species plays, citizens had to fight hard to get polar bears listed as “threatened” under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA). Although that decision was controversial, a new tally shows that citizen-driven ESA listings are just as valid as those identified by the pros.

One of the provisions of the ESA allows citizens to petition or sue the US Fish and Wildlife Service in order to get protection for a species or subspecies; the agency then conducts status reviews on the suggestions that appear to be warranted, then decide which deserve to be listed.

Critics of this controversial provision claim that most of the petitions and lawsuits are motivated by political interests, such as the intention to halt development. Detractors suggest that this stipulation of the ESA is not only unnecessary, but that it prevents money and resources from being used to protect the most vulnerable species.

A new study in Science used data from federal reports to determine whether listed species identified by the US Fish and Wildlife Service face greater biological threats than those listed as a result of citizen petitions or lawsuits. After examining the data for more than 900 species, the researchers found that species proposed via either petitions or lawsuits actually face greater biological threats than those identified by the federal agency.

Not surprisingly, petitioned and litigated species tend to be in greater conflict with development plans than those identified by the Fish and Wildlife Service; litigated species, in particular, are especially vulnerable. Habitat destruction is one of the major sources of biological threat, and this may explain why citizen-initiated species listed under the ESA tend to be particularly vulnerable.

So, while it may be true that political, rather than environmental, interests are driving some of these petitions and lawsuits, the citizen-initiative provision of the ESA does help identify species that are in jeopardy. In fact, since these species tend to be particularly imperiled, some might claim that citizens actually do a better job of choosing species for the list than do federal agencies.

Read more here.

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