Article #347 June 2023
By Bill Cook
If you subscribe to the premise that biological diversity has value, then species having survival challenges becomes important. The way that regulations work, however, may not always be the best or most sensible solution.
The forum on threatened and endangered species, TNEs for short, has multiple dimensions. At the surface is the noble effort to conserve and retain as many elements of diversity as possible. Not many people would oppose this ideal. However, there are groups that will argue how those efforts are deployed. One of the main arguments is the regulatory unintended consequences placed on particular groups.
Sometimes, better solutions outside the common regulatory framework make more sense.
This said, the federal and state endangered species acts have worked. Marvelously. Numerous success stories have brought species from the brink of disaster, sometimes to a nuisance status. Bald eagles have rebounded, to the joy of nearly everyone. Cormorants, on the other hand, have rebounded to the annoyance of many. Even the little Kirtland’s warbler has hit its marks through creative clearcutting of jack pine.
The differences between “endangered” and “threatened” involve population benchmarks and rates of decline. The strength of regulations between the two is significant. There is also a “special concern” category, which red tags species that run the risk of listing.
Consider the northern long-eared bat. A delightful little creature that is among the colonial bat species clobbered by the whitenose disease syndrome, an exotic fungus from Europe. When the status jumped from threatened to endangered, nest trees were protected. This impacts loggers and forestowners. Nest trees are hard to identify and often change each year. Some loggers now consider themselves an endangered species!
Yet, a lack of nest trees has nothing to do with declines in bat populations. Of course, the logging and forestowner communities brought this problem to the regulatory community. The laws call for public meetings to sift through potential ramifications and, hopefully, come to amicable solutions. Exceptions and exemptions can be made in the “standard” regulations to accommodate inequitable impacts on a human community. Although more complicated than it might seem, usually solutions can be found.
While efforts are made to minimize human impacts, sometimes entire economic sectors are demolished. Witness commercial fishing. I recently learned the price for harvested crab in Newfoundland is $1.68 per pound. How can those fisherman survive with that price? Or, logging in the Pacific Northwest squelched by an owl? I hear there isn’t a single sawmill left in Colorado. Could that be true? And, how has that affected the size and severity of wildfires? Too often, we can’t imagine the web we weave.
Another salient issue with TNEs is the photogeneity of the species. Everyone wants to save the whales. Few care about the threehorn wartyback (a mollusk, by the way) or an unusual slug. Which species gets the funding and attention? Most people haven’t heard of the majority of species on the TNE list. How important is this? Doubtless, cute poster children generate dollars. But, what if you’re not cute or pretty?
Michigan updated its TNE list in March 2023. The records now list about 400 species, of which most are plants. New listings include 58 species. Encouragingly, 36 species have been removed, including the graceful trumpeter swan, not to be confused with the nasty invasive mute swan. Oh the outcry when the DNR “removes” a mute swan from a lake ringed with houses!
Then again, a species listed in Michigan might be abundant elsewhere. While snowshoe hares are not listed, there is considerable effort and funding available to enhance hare habitat in Michigan. Across most of Canada, hares are wildly abundant. At first glance, one might think why bother with conservation when a species thrives elsewhere? A reasonable question, which can be responded to by emphasizing the significance of a species on the edge of its range, where it’s most vulnerable. It’s sort of like the proverbial canary in the coal mine.
A species no longer in Michigan is labelled “extirpated” not “extinct”. Extinct means the species is no longer alive anywhere, such as the passenger pigeon. Elk were once extirpated from Michigan but have successfully been re-introduced.
Also in Michigan, most TNE listings are from non-forest habitats, although forests may indirectly affect many. Wetland, aquatic, and prairie species are disproportionately represented. The Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI) is a particularly robust source of information for those interested in Michigan’s rarer natural resources.
For those especially forest-dependent TNE species, at the end of the day, perhaps the best all-around solution is simply good landscape silviculture. Not a single species has been lost from modern forestry practices and many have recovered.
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TRAILER- This website was created by a consortium of forestry groups to help streamline information about forestry and coordinate forestry activities designed to benefit the family forest owner and various publics that make up our Michigan citizenry. This website is maintained by Bill Cook, Retired Michigan State Extension Forester/Biologist. Direct comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.