Scientists Blast Bush Plan to Import More Endangered Species

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, March 10, 2004 (ENS) - More than 350 scientists from the international conservation community are urging President George W. Bush to withdraw his administration's proposal to allow U.S. hunters and businesses to capture, kill and import some endangered species from foreign countries.

The proposal "poses a significant threat to the very species it is designed to benefit," according to the letter the scientists sent to the administration.

World famous primatologist Jane Goodall, and esteemed zoologists and authors Dr. Edward O. Wilson and Dr. George Schaller were among the 359 signers of the letter, which questions both the structure and science behind the President's policy.

The proposal, which would alter the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), was announced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in September 2003.

U.S. residents and businesses are currently not permitted to capture, kill or import foreign species that have been listed under the act. Bush

President George W. Bush wants to change the Endangered Species Act to ease regulations of trade in foreign endangered species. (Photo courtesy the White House)
In its proposal, the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote that it now believes "there could be a greater conservation benefit by providing for the import and export of carefully selected ESA listed foreign species, or their parts and products, that are obtained from captive breeding programs or well managed conservation programs that limit removal from the wild and further promote and advance the conservation of the species within range countries."

The Bush administration says the policy reflects the recognition that allowing Americans to take a fixed number of endangered species can fuel and fund conservation efforts for these species in foreign countries.

Officials contend the Endangered Species Act and existing regulations provide full authority for issuance of these permits, but the federal government has chosen not to issue them in the past.

The administration's proposals would allow permits for Asian elephants, which are in high demand by circuses and zoos, as well as a valuable aquarium fish from Asia, a South American freshwater crocodile, an endangered goat found in Pakistan and an endangered Amazonian parrot.

But it also leaves decisions on permits for any ESA species up to the Interior Secretary if the import is "reasonably likely" to have a net conservation benefit for the species.

In their letter, the scientists raise the concern that the rule "would apply, without limitation, to any of the more than 550 foreign species currently protected by the ESA."

It questions the lack of enforcement standards in the proposal as well as its failure to account for the illegal trade and poaching that invariably accompanies increased legal trade in endangered animals.


Endangered Asian elephants bathe in a Sri Lankan stream. (Photo courtesy Galen Frysinger)
"As scientists and wildlife professionals, we recognize the intuitive appeal of sustainable use as a source of much-needed conservation funding, particularly in less developed countries," the scientists write. "However, experience has taught us that the narrow circumstances in which such programs can actually benefit species are extremely narrow."

"The history of negative outcomes from such programs counsels strongly against extractive use as a conservation tool for species already in danger of extinction."

The administration's plan does not define standards by which proposed conservation programs will be evaluated, the scientists say, nor does it identify monitoring mechanisms.

Without these elements, the neither the Fish and Wildlife Service nor the scientific community can "reliably assess the impacts of proposed conservation programs," according to the letter.

Jeff Corwin, a biologist and host of the popular "Jeff Corwin Experience" - a television program shown on the cable channel Animal Planet - signed the letter and said the Bush administration's claim that the proposal would benefit conservation efforts is unfounded.

"In reality they pose a threat to endangered species," Corwin said. "These creatures are hanging on by a thread. Without credible enforcement and verification mechanisms, sustainable use programs could easily drive them to extinction."

The comment period for the proposal ended Tuesday - the Fish and Wildlife Service will review the comments before issuing a revised or final rule.