Conservation of Endangered Wildlife Species

The legal tradition arose with regard to individual animals, but protecting endangered species has increasingly figured in regulations covering both game and nongame species. State departments, once of "Game and Fish," have largely been renamed departments of "Wildlife"; though hunting and fishing remain a large part of their assignments, their interest in threatened wildlife has dramatically increased. If the government can regulate individual animals, by the same logic it can regulate species. In the fall of1981, when black-footed ferrets were discovered on private ranches near Meeteetse, Wyoming, the ranchers were legally obligated to protect them. Furthermore, the federal government can designate critical habitat on private land.

Landowners ought not to shoot the bald eagles that fly over their property or cut the trees in which they nest. In compliance with the Endangered Species Act, in order to protect eighty bald eagle nesting sites, the Weyerhaeuser Company in the early 1980s set aside more than nine hundred acres in Washington and Oregon, representing over nine million dollars in unharvested timber. Lest it be supposed that the bald eagle, the national symbol, is a unique public good, Weyerhaeuser also, complying with the act, set aside 155 acres in southern states to protect 22 colonies of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. These woodpeckers prefer to nest in prime timber, eighty-year-old pine forests; loggers would rather cut these lands more often than that. Though these landowners cannot use the land as they once intended, costing them that opportunity, it does so lest they destroy, at the species level, eagles and woodpeckers that, though on their land, do not belong to them but are a common good.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 is the most far-reaching wildlife statute adopted by any nation. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is charged by the act to list both domestic and foreign wildlife species threatened with extinction. No government agency may undertake projects likely to jeopardize listed species, at home or abroad, except under authority of a high-level committee that has granted few exemptions. Jeopardizing species includes disrupting their habitat. Neither can persons take listed wildlife species on private lands. In evaluating whether to list a species, economic considerations may not be considered, a point of repeated contention but one that the U.S. Congress has reaffirmed several times. Importing species on the worldwide list into the United States is illegal except under specific conditions.

Generally this concern, enacted into legislation, reveals an increasing sense of human duty toward wildlife that comes to special focus when a species becomes endangered. Game managers who may once have thought of their responsibility as the production of an annual crop of game to shoot now see themselves as wildlife managers whose responsibility is to provide for a diverse native fauna on the landscape, both for the benefits such wildlife brings to humans and out of respect for what all species of wildlife, not just the game species, are in themselves.

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