Citizens Attest: Joe Public Pleads Best Case For Endangered Species…
Citizen science is alive and well. Species nominated for legal protection by US citizens face higher levels of biological threat than those identified by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The finding looks set to silence critics who question citizens’ motivation for nominating species for protection.
The US Endangered Species Act of 1973 gives citizens, as well as the government, a role in selecting which species should be legally protected by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It also allows citizens to take to court any decisions they don’t like.
Not everyone is happy with the situation. The Bush administration unsuccessfully requested a limit on citizen input in 2001, and the Fish and Wildlife Service repeated the request, again unsuccessfully, in 2011.
"I was picking up on a lot of criticism of this part of the Act", says Berry Brosi, an environmental researcher at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. “Citizens were accused of overwhelming the government with paperwork, and of being politically motivated – using the Act to block developments like new shopping malls that they didn’t like.”
Along with Eric Biber, a law professor at the University of California in Berkeley, Brosi set about comparing animals selected for protection by citizens with those selected by the FWS. If there were ulterior motives at play in the citizen nominations, their selected species should be at lower risk of extinction than the FWS-nominated species.
In fact, Brosi and Biber found the opposite. Species chosen by citizens faced significantly greater risk. The researchers conclude that citizens play a valuable role in spotting endangered animals.
"There are probably two things going on here," says Brosi. "Firstly, people might be under less political pressure than the government to ignore at-risk animals conflicting with big-dollar developments. Secondly, citizens help cover the diverse expertise needed to select endangered species across a country as big as the US."
Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, an NGO that has petitioned for many of the species now on the protected list, is not surprised by the finding.
"Many scientists and local experts put a lot of time into identifying imperilled species, and they can help government agencies with limited resources," he says. "Conservation in the US relies on the Endangered Species Act as a check. It allows us to get better scientific results by focusing on the most threatened species rather than the most politically convenient."
The Fish and Wildlife Service has not responded to New Scientist's requests for a comment on the new study.