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Democracy in Action

December 6, 2012
by April M. Short

Controversy has surrounded the federal Endangered Species Act since its enactment in 1973. But in recent years, the debate has centered on one key provision that allows citizens including environmental groups, nonprofits, and members of the scientific community to petition for species to be listed. Critics argue the provision forces the Fish and Wildlife Service, the government agency tasked with upholding the legislation, to waste time and resources processing the stream of citizen requests and covering litigation fees. This year, the FWS itself proposed to cap the funding it spends in dealing with citizen petitions.

However, getting rid of the provision entirely would be a mistake, according to a recent analysis by Berkeley professor of environmental law Eric Biber and Berry Brosi of Emory University’s Department of Environmental Studies. “Our paper makes it clear that implementation of the act will be less effective if you have less litigation and fewer petitions,” says Biber.

The researchers used the FWS’s own statistics to build a database of the 913 domestic and freshwater species listed as “threatened” or “endangered” under the act from 1986 on. They then examined whether citizens or the FWS initiated the petition, whether it was litigated, and whether it conflicted with a development project. The researchers then assessed the level of biological threat assigned to each species, using the FWS’s own scores.

The results showed that citizens are more likely to initiate petitions that conflict with development; moreover, the species in these petitions are significantly more threatened on average than those in FWS-initiated petitions.

Biber cautions that the analysis cannot show whether or not the benefits of citizen input outweigh the costs. Still, the results demonstrate that citizen input is valuable.

“Before, there were claims out there that we could have our cake and eat it too, that we could have fewer petitions, fewer litigations, spend less money, and the act would operate better because, ‘After all, the agency knows best,'” he says. “What we’re saying is, ‘No, there’s a trade-off here.’ We can’t answer how you make that trade-off, but there’s a trade-off you have to make.”

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