Organizational Obstacles to Saving Species

In studying black-footed ferrets and bull trout, Different Drummer found serious tensions between the various agencies attempting to recover these species. These tensions are not unusual; in fact, they are so frequently mentioned in the literature about endangered species that they may be the rule rather than the exception.

Karl Hess' description of problems with ferret recovery are reported by others involved with the ferrets. Richard Reading, with the Bureau of Land Management, and Brian Miller, with the Smithsonian Institution, say that "professional and organizational weaknesses" have hindered ferret recovery.

In fact, they worry that the very success of the ferret captive breeding program tends to mask such organizational problems. This reduces the pressure to fix the organizational problems. "If organizational considerations are not better addressed," note Reading and Miller, "species whose biology and ecology are less amenable to recovery may go extinct."

The ferret is not unique in suffering from conflicts among federal and state agencies. Efforts to protect the spotted owl foundered on conflicts within the Bureau of Land Management between the Congressional mandate to save species and the BLM's own history, orientation, and incentives towards timber cutting.

In 1991, a team of experts known as the "gang of four"--Jack Ward Thomas, Jerry Franklin, John Gordon and Norman Johnson--wrote what was then considered to be a state-of-the-art plan for protecting the owl. The plan included old-growth reserves. But it also insisted that the Forest Service and BLM should manage its other forests in compliance with what became known as the "50-40-11 rule." This rule stated that, at all times, at least 50 percent of the managed forests should be at least 40 years old and at least 11 inches in diameter.

The Forest Service, which had always planned to grow trees to at least 80 years of age before final harvest, had no problem with this rule. But the BLM had planned final harvests in many forests when they were as young as 50 or even 40 years. When they made this plan in the 1970s, it allowed them to step up the rate of old-growth cuttings. After cutting at this higher rate for well over a decade, adoption of the 50-40-11 rule would force the BLM to virtually cease timber sales in western Oregon.

The BLM's western Oregon timber program was the pride of the agency. Naturally, and in spite of the Endangered Species Act's mandate to give rare species a priority above all else, the agency rebelled against the 50-40-11 rule. The rebellion took the form of a petition to the god squad to exempt BLM sales from the law. The god squad denied the petition, but the president's forest plan later dropped the 50-40-11 rule. Nevertheless, resentment against the owl still smolders within Oregon offices of the BLM.

Recovery efforts all over the country are plagued with similar problems. "Land management agencies" says Ken Alvarez, a biologist involved in the effort to recover the Florida panther, "will not readily depart from established practice when presented with a novel challenge." The story of the Florida panther recovery, says Alvarez, is one of "resistance," or at least a "lack of official enthusiasm," on the part of public land agencies ranging from the Florida Department of Natural Resources to the National Park Service.

"Problems are clearly evident in the professional and organizational systems involved in endangered species conservation," says Jerome Jackson, a biologist at Mississippi State University who has worked with the red-cockaded woodpecker for more than twenty-five years. He describes "professional obstacles" to woodpecker recovery raised by the Forest Service, the Army, and even the Fish & Wildlife Service.

Noel Snyder, who led efforts to save the California Condor from 1980 to 1986, notes that conflicts between the Fish & Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish & Game, as well as the National Audubon Society, which helped raise money for and participated in the recovery program, sometimes led to a near gridlock in the program's efforts.

"Organizations are not mere mechanisms," concludes Alvarez. It is not enough to simply command them to protect species, as the Endangered Species Act attempts to do; you have to build into their organizational structures incentives for them to do it. As Snyder says, "the system of rewards and benefits in government organizations and many NGOs [non-profit organizations] needs restructuring to favor efficiency and decentralization of authority and to punish proliferation of bureaucracy."

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