Saving Species No Longer About the Prettiest

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 29, 2009

MENDOTA, Calif. -- Are we ready to start saving ugly species?

When it began compiling lists of threatened and endangered animals and plants more than 35 years ago, the U.S. government gave itself the same mandate as Noah's Ark: Save everything.

But in practice, the effort has often worked more like a velvet-rope nightclub: Glamour rules.

The furry, the feathered, the famous and the edible have dominated government funding for protected species, to the point that one subpopulation of threatened salmon gets more money than 956 other plants and animals combined.

Now, though, scientists say they're noticing a little more love for the unlovely.

They say plain-Jane plants, birds with fluorescent goiters and beetles that meet their mates at rat corpses are getting new money and respect -- finally valued as homely canaries inside treasured ecosystems.

But it still can be a hard sell. That's obvious here in California's Central Valley, where farmers are locked in a bitter fight with a glassy-eyed smelt.

"Over a stupid fish," said Mendota Mayor Robert Silva.

"A worthless little worm," Rep. George Radanovich (R-Calif.) called the fish, "that needs to go the way of the dinosaur."

The government lists 1,318 U.S. species as threatened or endangered, everything from the American alligator to the Florida ziziphus, a spiny shrub. By one measure, the federal government has already done something miraculous for them: It has kept them around. Only nine listed U.S. species have been declared extinct since the act was passed in 1973.

But the idea was not just to arrest species at the edge of disappearing: It was to bring them back. And by that measure, most of the success has gone to glamour species.

Only 15 U.S. species have officially been declared "recovered." They are three plants, two obscure tropical birds -- and 10 animals that would look good on a T-shirt. These include gray wolves, bald eagles, brown pelicans and the Yellowstone subpopulation of grizzly bears.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company