Monday, 6 December 2010

Researchers say societal values must be considered in endangered species decisions

Researchers argue that, when making decisions on whether a species need protection from extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has excluded significant research findings about human threats to protected species, even though the law governing the agencies action requires all decisions to be based “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available.”

A group of scientists, led by Jeremy Bruskotter of Ohio State University, argue in the December issue of the journal BioScience that research about societal values should be considered along with biological and ecological data in listing decisions. The researchers refer to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2009 decision to remove grey wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains from endangered species protections to demonstrate their point.

In it's decision to remove Grey Wolves from the endangered species list in 2009, the Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged  that “human-caused mortality” pushed them dangerously close to extinction in the 1930s, but then claim that “attitudes toward wolves have improved greatly over the past 30 years.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service cited only a single study from 2002 to support this claim. Bruskotter said, “This is not for a lack of literature on the topic.”  He stated that there were plenty of studies on the attitudes towards wolves dating back to the 1970's. Bruskotter and his colleagues discovered that attitudes towards wolves had actually remained "stable over the last 30 years" and that there was no indication of improvement. In addition, the researchers found that attitudes have become more negative between 1999 and 2008, especially in the northern Rocky Mountains.

In it's decision to delist the Grey Wolves, the Fish and Wildlife Service also argued that state management of wolves will foster local support of wolves and wolf recovery; and existing state regulatory mechanisms will “balance negative attitudes” and ensure recovery. However an Idaho survey cited by Bruskotter suggests that powerful stakeholders in the state  (mainly big game hunters and livestock producers) “are motivated to kill as many wolves as possible without returning wolves to federal protections.”

The researchers also questioned the ability of state regulator mechanisms to "balance negative attitudes" towards wolves by citing several legislative actions from states in the Northern Rockies which call for the removal of wolves.

“Risks that relate to humans range from direct killing of animals to a municipality encouraging development in areas where species are sensitive,” Bruskotter said. “The Fish and Wildlife Service will look at direct impacts, or the proximate cause of species decline. They don’t often step back and consider what lies behind those causes. And that’s one of the things we’re saying they need to do.”

He also sympathised with the organisation, saying the Fish and Wildlife Service is “hammered from every angle. This is not a condemnation of their action. It’s meant to be forward thinking — to provide a roadmap for how to incorporate social science information into future endangered species decisions.

The researchers concluded that "It is time for the Fish and Wildlife Service to expand its view of what constitutes ‘science’ and fully incorporate the social sciences into listing decisions.”

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