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Americans agree on animal protection; experts disagree on which ones need it

LANSING — In a time of extreme polarization, a recent study has found something most of the American public can agree on:

Endangered species deserve protection and more than they get now.

The study by researchers from Michigan Tech University and other institutions surveyed 1,000 U.S. residents to understand what the general public perceives as acceptable risks for endangered species.

Responses indicated that the public is much less accepting of risks and losses to endangered species than policymakers and experts are.

Tom Offer-Westort, a research scientist at the University of Oklahoma and the lead author of the study in Environmental Research Letters, said he was surprised how universal the findings were.

John Vucetich, a professor at MTU and a leader of the Isle Royale Wolf and Moose Project, was a co-author of the study.

He said he wasn’t surprised by the relative agreement by the public. “It’s not an uncommon phenomenon for there to be an issue that appears polarizing and controversial, but it actually isn’t.”

Why the agreement on protecting wildlife?

“I think people just value biodiversity,” Offer-Westort said. “I think people like wild animals. I think they want there to be lots of different kinds of species out there. The idea of that going away is sad and scary, and I think this is a value people share regardless of background.”

Despite that common value, the study also illuminates something the general public, lawmakers, policymakers and experts disagree about:

What counts as an endangered species?

According to the Endangered Species Act, it’s one that’s “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”

That seems simple, but those 13 words carry many interpretations.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service policy interprets range to mean the area a species occupies at the time of listing and states that a species cannot be listed solely because it has lost a significant portion of its historical range.

Having a consistent interpretation allows federal agencies to use time and resources effectively while protecting vulnerable species, according to the agency.

However, there are critics of the agency’s understanding of the law, including Vucetich.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s interpretation allows it to be comfortable with higher risks of extinction, Vucetich said.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is clearly just not interested in protecting endangered species to the degree that the Endangered Species Act obviously requires,” he said.

“What becomes relevant here is that occasionally the Fish and Wildlife Service gets sued over this interpretation, and every time that they get sued they have lost on the grounds of their interpretation,” he said.

Vucetich isn’t the only one who objects to the agency’s policies.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is perennially trying to look at isolated populations rather than recovery of the species as a whole,” said Bonnie Rice, a senior representative of the Sierra Club’s Greater Yellowstone campaign.

Changes to the Endangered Species Act during the Trump administration are especially concerning, she said.

The Americans surveyed by Offer-Westort and his colleagues gave a simpler definition of which species deserve protection.

According to the average response of participants, the federal government should step in to protect a species after 21.5% of its historic range is lost. Half of the participants said the government should protect a species after just 10% of its range is lost.

Vucetich said, “If the federal government applied the law that way, many species that are currently endangered — they’d be endangered forever.”

Having more species classified as endangered would be sad but would more accurately reflect the severity of the biodiversity crisis, he said.

Gray wolves are a poster child for the debate over what counts as an endangered species.

They’re listed as endangered throughout the Great Lakes region, except in Minnesota, where they are threatened, said Georgia Parham, a public affairs officer with the Fish and Wildlife Service. They were removed from the list in 2011, only to be put back on in 2014 after a federal court disagreed with the agency’s interpretation of the Endangered Species Act.

In March 2019, the agency proposed a rule to delist the gray wolf in the lower 48 states, citing a successful recovery of the species. The agency will issue a final decision on their status in the coming months after analyzing hundreds of public comments, Parham said.

Vucetich said he worries that the political and economic costs of protecting endangered species encourages delisting.

Wolves occupy about 15% of their historic range in the United States, Vucetich said.

“Until wolves live in far more places than they do, or until somebody offers an interpretation of the law that says 15% occupancy is fine and it’s a good interpretation of the law, then I would say that they should remain endangered.”

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, sound science indicates that the gray wolf has recovered by any and all measures required under the law.

And Offer-Westort said what counts as an endangered species isn’t a question for experts alone.

“It’s a question for the public because it isn’t something that’s based on scientific evidence alone. It should stem from what our values are,” he said.

Amelia Cole writes for Great Lakes Echo.

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