Teaching Endangered Species Management

By: Joel T. Heinen

Inherent to implementation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) are conflicts in the public and private sectors, and at local, regional, and national levels. Conflicts can arise from, for example, differing priorities and management styles of the individuals involved in the process (Clark and Brunner 1996). Understanding and addressing the human dimensions of these debates may help diminish the current polarization in the reauthorization of the ESA and its implementation.

Humans have a propensity for self interest (Heinen and Low 1992; Low and Heinen 1993). This inclination leads humans to discount problems, including environmental concerns, in both space and time. Thus, major environmental issues, such as species extinction, are not necessarily perceived to be as urgent as they really are. Relatively minor problems, such as household waste, are frequently perceived to be urgent simply because they are close to the actor in both space and time.

How does one design solutions based on this understanding of human nature? Solutions depend on the scale and scope of the problem and the degree of societal heterogeneity of the target group. Some environmental problems that are already perceived to be urgent, such as household waste, may be solvable through the use of education campaigns and social incentives. Examples include advertising the actions of those who recycle to neighbors and friends, thus providing a social incentive for creating recycling behavior. Many other problems, farther away in space and time, may be more difficult to solve. In cases where the impact of the problem is dispersed over time, the use of economic incentives is considered to be the most effective general strategy.

A recent review (Heinen 1995) of several private, state and federal endangered species management initiatives looked at potential solutions based both on social and economic incentives in recovery planning. Findings indicate that the ESA as implemented throughout much of its history is heavily focused on the technical aspects of recovery, and has paid less attention to the socio-economic and political dimensions. This precedent may be partly responsible for the level of conflict now witnessed.

Teaching the Issue

To provide an opportunity for exploration of the social and political dimensions of the ESA, I proposed a university course entitled Endangered Species Management. Topics included an introduction to resource law and to the ESA, legal provisions of and challenges to the ESA, organizational issues related to recovery planning, and case studies in recovery programs (e.g., the Northern Spotted Owl, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Red Wolf).

Students selected a Florida-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery plan to analyze. Species chosen show a fair amount of diversity and included some resident 'charismatics' (e.g., manatees), plants, residential and migratory birds, and reptiles. Students reviewed and provided an overview of a recovery plan, including a description of the species, habitat requirements, and a synopsis of the recovery timetable.

Discussions on the overlap and differences between plans showed that many had similar habitat conservation goals, yet planning efforts were singular and disconnected. In a few cases, management prescriptions conflicted for listed species found within the same areas (e.g., water management proposals for the snail kite versus the wood stork in the Everglades). Thus the inherent inefficiency of single-species recovery planning was exposed. Subsequent study was devoted to ecosystem management, multi-species recovery planning, and case studies in habitat conservation planning.

Based on theory and analysis of the earlier case studies, students then proposed incentive-based initiatives relevant to their specific recovery plans. They presented information on education efforts achieved and further initiatives needed, and made specific recommendations for implementing both social and economic incentives to enhance recovery goals. Students were also asked to integrate their plans with plans for other listed Florida species found in similar habitats, where relevant.

Discussion indicated the last exercise was the most difficult and the richest learning experience. Students were forced to consider, in a familiar geographical context, competing demands inherent to many resource management issues when the drive for development is juxtaposed against a public will for conservation.

Exploring the short- and mid-range solutions for conservation problems within the narrow context of recovery planning for Florida species listed under the ESA provided students with a unique, integrated and interdisciplinary learning experience. Students in fields such as biology, policy, and economics gained a deeper understanding of both their own disciplines and possible interdisciplinary solutions.

Literature Cited

Clark, T.W. and R.D. Brunner. 1996. Making partnerships work in endangered species conservation: An introduction to the decision process. Endangered Species UPDATE 13(9):1-5.

Heinen, J. T. 1995. Thoughts and theory on incentive-based endangered species conservation in the United States. Wildlife Society Bulletin 23(3):338-345.

Heinen, J. T. and B. S. Low. 1992. Human behavioral ecology and environmental conservation. Environmental Conservation 19(2):105-116.

Low, B. S. and J. T. Heinen. 1993. Population, resources, and environment: Implications of human behavioral ecology for conservation. Population and Environment 15(1):7-41.

Dr. Joel T. Heinen, a former editor of the Endangered Species UPDATE, received his PhD in Natural Resources at the University of Michigan in 1992. He is now Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at Florida International University, Miami, FL 33199.

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