Dr. Reed Noss Has a Talk With Congress

Noss in Big Cypress_editedDr. Reed Noss, the Provost’s Distinguished Research Professor of Biology at UCF, recently had the opportunity to testify before Congress for the oversight hearing on “Defining Species Conservation Success: Tribal, State and Local Stewardship vs. Federal Courtroom Battles and Sue-and-Settle Practices.” The hearing was the first of a series in this Congress that are meant to showcase the positive species conservation efforts being undertaken at on-the-ground levels when compared to Endangered Species Act (ESA) litigation.

It is often thought that litigious environmental groups impede the ESA through lawsuits and closed-door settlements and that those who work closest to the species, like private landowners, better understand how to protect them. While Noss does not believe the courtroom is the best place to address the challenge of conserving and recovering endangered species, he felt that lawsuits are often necessary to force the agencies responsible for protecting endangered species to do their jobs. Noss also thought there was opportunity in testifying on what is working and what needs to be improved under the existing legislation.

He began his testimony reminding the committee why the U.S. has an Endangered Species Act and about the value of species and nature. Noss reminded the committee that Americans appreciate and value their wildlife. He explained that it is sensible to prevent the human caused extinction of any species because of the uncertainty of the importance an individual species has for its ecosystem. He also noted that most Americans believe that species have value for their own sakes.

Noss discussed the important issue of the listing and recovery of species, and used the example of the endangered Florida Grasshopper Sparrow to further explain his point of view. The bird has been listed under the ESA as endangered since 1986 and is now probably the most endangered bird in the U.S. The bird is only found in the unique dry prairie ecosystem of south-central Florida, most of which has been converted to improved pasture, agriculture, and recently, urban sprawl.

He says, “Given that the first stated goal of the ESA is to conserve ecosystems, this sparrow potentially plays a very valuable role.”

The reason for the decline of the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow is unknown, and although they do have some hypotheses, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not funded the necessary field research to determine the cause of decline, according to Noss.

Noss wrote in his testimony, “The point is, we cannot recover species if we don’t understand the causes of decline and the basic biology of the species. The likely extinction of the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow within the next few years does not represent a failure of the Endangered Species Act. It represents a failure of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to obtain, through research, the scientific knowledge needed to stop the population decline and achieve recovery- and then act on that information.”

He explained that this failure is in part due to the insufficient budget given to the Endangered Species Program of the service by Congress and the Administration.

“The fact is that there would be no need for citizens to sue the government if the agencies (the Fish and Wildlife Service and Marine Fisheries Service) were doing their jobs and taking care of endangered species. They are not doing their jobs very well for two reasons: they don’t get enough funding from Congress and the Administration, and they get continual political interference. So, ironically, Congress is the source of the courtroom battles that Congress is complaining about” said Noss.

He concluded his testimony by again reminding those at the hearing that respect for life and prevention of extinction is a universal ethical value.

“As Americans, we should be proud to have a powerful law that reflects this ethical value, and we should do everything we can to assure its successful implementation. I trust that this committee will take this responsibility seriously.”

Noss has worked in the fields of ecology and conservation biology for four decades and teaches conservation biology, ecosystems of Florida, ornithology, and history of ecology at UCF. He is currently leading a research project to explore the vulnerability of species and ecosystems in Florida to sea-level rise in combination with land-use change (for example, urban sprawl), and changes in temperature and precipitation. Noss also recently completed a book on the grasslands of the southern United States and remains involved in science and conservation efforts for these ecosystems. His new book project, which he is in the process of writing, will discuss natural disturbances and how they are changing with climate change and other human impacts.

To view the entire hearing, click here.

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