Breath of Clarity

Assumptions in the Endangered Species Act

While species endangerment is not the only critically important factor impacting biodiversity, it is still a major issue in the context of ecosystem health. The presence of trophic structures demonstrate how the loss of one species has a detrimental effect on its entire ecosystem. The extinction of a single species is rarely an isolated event. Instead, dependent parasites, commensals, and mutualist affiliates face the risk of co-extinction as their hosts or partners decline and fail (Colwell et al. 2012). Species interactions in ecological networks can transmit the effects of primary extinctions within and between trophic levels, causing secondary extinctions and extinction cascades (Colwell et al. 2012).

However, the assumption the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is saving the rare species most critically important to protecting biodiversity is inaccurate. The limited funds devoted to fulfilling the mission of the ESA are frequently misallocated (CBS News 2019). If endangered or threatened, it definitely helps if a species is cute, majestic or economically valuable (CBS News 2019). Considering the strange creatures or animals having a conflict with humans are those who get the most attention and funding, the decision regarding which species to save is not based upon roles in the ecosystem community.

Currently, when a species is listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the land management services must consider whether there are areas of habitat essential to conserving the species (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2012). Identifying critical habitat enhances the conservation of listed species by providing important information about the actual and potential distribution of a species (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2012). However, critical habitat does not affect private landowners who are undertaking activities that do not require federal permits, funding, or approval (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2012). As a result, the effort to preserve a species is limited. One way to make the ESA more effective is for Congress to consider extending its definition of critical habitat to impact private landowners. Additionally, successful examples of habitat restoration programs exist for the California condors and black-footed ferrets (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2012). Another way to make the ESA more effective is to closely investigate how these programs resulted in beneficial outcomes and model new restoration plans after these examples.

Furthermore, biodiversity decline is due to other reasons such as unbalanced biogeochemical cycling, land use changes, natural disasters, invasive species, human population increases, and more. It is important to view land protection as a way to protect biodiversity which is under threat due to climate change. Research shows 99.8% of endangered species possess a trait that makes it challenging to adapt to global warming (Rice 2019). However, federal agencies consider only 64% of endangered species to be threatened by climate change and have implemented protection plans for just 18% of listed species (Rice 2019). All in all, the assumption that current endangered species management protects ecosystems from long-term harm is irrational.


CBS News. 2019. “On the brink: The Endangered Species Act.” CBS news. Jul 21, 2019. Video, 7:57.

Colwell, Robert, Nyeema Harris, and Robert Dunn. 2012. “Coextinction and Persistence of Dependent Species in a Changing World”. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics. 43: 183-203.

Rice, Doyle. 2019. “Feds aren’t doing enough to protect endangered species from climate change, study finds”. USA Today. Accessed January 6 2020.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2012. “Endangered Species Act 101: Basic Overview.” YouTube. January 6.

Comment by Fenton Kay:

Great statement, Mary. One problem that ESA practitioners face is data lack (as well as money lack). There are a number of listed insects that are so poorly known and so rare, that determining critical habitat or even cause of endangerment verges on impossible. We don’t know what their role in their ecosystems is or might be. Do you think that there is a way to approach this particular problem that is reasonable?

My Comment:

Hi Fenton,

Awesome question. The first step would be gathering more data to increase the number of rare insects known. The greatest majority of creatures in amber, which is fossilized tree resin, are insects and they often preserve the finest 3D details (Briggs 2018, 6525). A fly and mite were discovered trapped in a spider web in Early Cretaceous amber from Spain, and a scale insect in mid-Cretaceous Burmese amber is associated with eggs and freshly hatched nymphs, showing that brood care in insects dates back at least 100 million years (Briggs 2018, 6525). Some amber insects even retain the cellular structure of internal soft tissue, such as muscle (Briggs 2018, 6525). Understanding the phenotype of discovered insects can help reveal their traits which providesa glimpse of insight into their roles in ecosystems. Fortunately, resin production is stimulated by insect attack (Briggs 2018, 6525). Trapping an insect on a specific plant’s resin reveals part of the insect’s role in the ecosystem is interacting with that plant. At the same time, trapping insects in the resin provides a solution to the problem of sampling bias because all insects in the forest are vulnerable to capture in this way (Briggs 2018, 6525). While insects in amber reveal the presence of certain species in the past, a similar method can be used to trap insects that are currently flying around. A study by Solorzano Kraemer used sticky traps set on trees and Malaise traps (tent-like structures rising up from the ground). The study suggested the abundance of different insects depended on their ecology and behavior. Therefore, catching and analyzing the insects may bring knowledge about their role in their ecosystem (Kraemer 2018).


Briggs, Derek. 2018. “Sampling the Insects of the Amber Forest”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 115 (26): 6525-6527.

Kraemer, Solorzano. 2018. “Arthropods in Modern Resins Reveal if Amber Accurately Recorded Forest Arthropod Communities”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 115 (26): 6739-6744.

Comment by Fenton Kay:

Good reply, Mary, albeit a tad esoteric. My wife did her Ph.D. on ants and did a post-doc at Tall Timbers Research Station in north Florida. A substantial part of her sampling included tanglefoot traps. Messy, but very effective. The diversity of just ants has always astounded me.

Comment by Kathy Sweezey:

Hi Mary,

I am glad that you brought up funding allocations. Even if protecting endangered species was a critically important factor in protecting biodiversity, there is an inequality in the species that need protection under the ESA and the species that actually receive greater amounts of funding. Priority levels are established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based on the level of threat, recovery potential, and distinctiveness of the species, but studies have found that “while an animal’s charisma to humans effected its funding, a carefully researched and constructed priority did not” (Bellon 2019, 407). Some species may have more of an influence on biodiversity than others, but they may not fall under the “cute and cuddly” category. Do you think that the opinions of the public are more important than the opinions of policy developers regarding the allocation of funding to certain species?


Bellon, Alejandro M. 2019. “Does animal charisma influence conservation funding for vertebrate species under the US Endangered Species Act?” Environmental Economics and Policy Studies 21 (January): 399-411.

My Comment:

Hi Kathy,

Great question! Public opinion is important in the process of selecting which species are allocated funds because of the profits a popular creature may provide (makes me think of the classic film Free Willy) and the power of the public to put any sort of environmental concern onto the political agenda. However, sometimes the public can put a concern out in the open but not necessarily get a desired outcome. Or, the public can use the ESA to bring up a concern and achieve a desired outcome. For example, the catastrophic New South Wales fires persisted for 240 consecutive days from July 2019 to March 2020. Originally receiving approval for the project back in 2008, developer Ozy Homes planned to turn a 20-hectare area that was still unburnt mature growth forest into 180 new, upscale properties. The coastal forest contains a wide array of biodiversity including the Greater Glider. Since it is already endangered, it brings potential to protect the bushland via the Australian Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Initially, the effort to preserve the remaining woodlands started with the locals, and then it resonated with government officials who created time for the issue to be fully considered. The Federal Court ordered a short reprieve of the developer’s plans while a team overseen by David Lindenmayer from the Australian National University takes three days to survey the land for primarily the Great Glider’s presence amongst other living things (Environmental Defenders Office 2020). From there, it was simply a matter of generating government funds to compensate Ozy Homes so the developer would take its ideas elsewhere. That said, my thought about whether public opinion is more important than that of policy developers is the two are not necessarily as separate as it may seem. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund), and related regulations require public involvement in determining impacts, identifying threats and deciding on remedial environmental actions. Federal environmental planning is oriented towards allowing forums for airing public concerns, without direct public control of decisions.


Environmental Defenders Office. May 27 2020. “Federal Court Order Halts Manyana Clearing.” Accessed June 2 2020. clearing/

Rossman, Edwin. “The Social Organization Of Risk: Public Involvement In Federal Environmental Planning”. 1994. Industrial & Environmental Crisis Quarterly. 8 (3): 191-204.

Comment by Eric Lanners:

Hello Mary,

I want to add to your conversation about the importance of the opinions of the public and policymakers. Washington state can be thought of as two different states separated by the Cascade Mountains. The western side of the Cascades is liberal and consists of forests. The eastern side is conservative and more desert-like. The Snake and Columbia River (in the eastern half) have hydropower dams that provide substantial economic services to the region; however, the dams have severely reduced native salmon and steelhead populations who use these rivers to migrate to and from their spawning grounds. A consequence of this is that a population of Orca, who primarily feed on these salmon, are slowly dying off due to a lack of sustenance. Public opinion on the western side of the state favors breaching the dams to save the Orca, where the eastern side wants to retain the dams for economic reasons. Policymakers generally back the opinion of their constituents in this debate. There is no easy solution to this complex issue, mostly because public opinion is so strong on both sides.