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Endangered Species Act Under Fire: Controversies, Science, Values & the Law

Despite opportunities for ecosystem-wide protection measures and early intervention before crisis, these opportunities were foregone.

My central purpose was to explore whether Congress intended to protectecosystems and err on the side of species protection in the Endangered Species Act(ESA) and whether the Act’s legislative history transcends a simple economy versusenvironment dialectic. I examined the ESA’s legislative history from its passage in1973 through key amendments in 1978, 1982, and 1988 by analyzing the valuesactors invoked, their rhetorical strategies, and their use of ecosystem andprecautionary themes.

I identified actors’ expressed values and preferred outcomes withincongressional hearings and floor debate. I assessed their value usage using crosstabulationsand log likelihood ratios. The use of ecosystem protection and theprecautionary approach was reviewed via content analysis. I analyzed these themeswithin conflict areas such as the Tellico Dam controversy in 1978 and wolfreintroduction in 1988. I considered general expressions regarding ecosystemprotection and erring on the side of biodiversity protection given scientificuncertainty.

I found that ecological values and ecosystem protection arguments wereinvoked consistently throughout the legislative history. Actors expressing ecologicalvalues were likely to support strengthening species wildlife protection. Utilitarian andmoralistic arguments were also used by actors promoting a stronger ESA, therebyundermining an economics versus environment dichotomy.

Results from the precautionary principle analysis were mixed. Although theprecautionary principle was never explicitly promoted in the legislative history, avariety of actors advocated protecting species in the face of uncertainty. This stancewas challenged by other participants, and the legislative outcomes remainedequivocal.

The findings of this congressional analysis were compared with the ESA’simplementation via case studies on the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentaliscaurina) and the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus). These casesindicated that the ESA is not being administered using an ecosystem or precautionaryapproach. Despite opportunities for ecosystem-wide protection measures and earlyintervention before crisis, these opportunities were foregone. This is likely due toagency desires to avoid bold action.

Specific suggestions are offered to improve policy by integrating ecosystemand precautionary protection into current conflicts surrounding species listings,reintroduction/translocation, critical habitat designation, recovery plans, consultation,habitat conservation plans, and prohibitions on take.

Read the Dissertation (PDF) (1.7 MB)


 

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