Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Politics of Biodiversity

Hello everyone and welcome back to another installment of “The Political Bug!” As a brief note, I’d like to say that this page has hit a milestone since the last entry. As of this post, “The Political Bug” has passed 50 hits! It’s modest, I know, but it means that people are at least taking a look, which is encouraging. Also, the blog has been read now in three countries: The USA, Canada, and Russia. So to my readers in all three nations, I say, “Thanks.”

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    As an entomologist, one of the aspects of Class Insecta that simply fascinates me is the tremendous breadth of biodiversity. You have a group of organisms that has conquered almost every imaginable habitat and the adaptations that they have developed along the way have resulted in novel and intriguing body shapes and life cycles. So as a result of this love for biodiversity, I am beginning a mult-part series on biodiversity as it pertains to politics and policy.
   Perhaps one of the most important legislations in the United States as it regards biodiversity is the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA). Passed during the Nixon administration, the ESA “provides a program for the conservation of threatened and endangered plants and animals and the habitats in which they are found.” It further requires “federal agencies, in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and/or the NOAA Fisheries Service, to ensure that actions they authorize, fund, or carry out are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat of such species” ( So, in essence, the act creates a framework under which federal authority can direct the management and protection of endangered species. This mission has been upheld in the Supreme Court, recognizing that its goal is to “halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost” (Lugo, 2007).
Karner Blue Butterfly (

     The ESA is enforced by the Fish and Wildlife Agency and has served as a cornerstone of the conservation movement since its inception. However, conservation of endangered species is thorny subject in certain circles. To begin with, one line of debate is whether humans should be doing anything to protecting endangered species. While protecting economically important groups is seen as a good thing, devoting time and effort into species and habitats that don’t directly influence human activity is a much more difficult position to defend. And while most people see the protection of endangered plants and animals as a good thing, not everyone agrees in how to do so. There are many individuals that see the ESA as an impediment to economic progress and an infringement of rights. Because of the need to conserve threatened habitat under the ESA, economic development of 

resources and discretionary use of private land are superseded, legitimately angering those inconvenienced. I’ll go to greater depth on the issue of ESA regulation in the future, but for now I would like to touch upon how the ESA impacts insects specifically.
Elderberry Longhorn Beetle (

American Burying Beetle (
   I was quite surprised to discover that only 60 insect species are identified as threatened or endangered (http:/? / L&mapstatus=1). While at first glance, this may sound like a good thing, in truth it reveals a lack of effort on the part of endangered species activists to work towards getting insects on the list. This is due to many factors, including a lack of skilled entomologists working with these groups (Lugo, 2007). Among the more notable insect species on the list are the American burying beetle, the Karner Blue butterfly, Hine’s emerald dragonfly, and 4 species of tiger beetle. In addition to the small number of insects on the list in total, the breakdown by order is not reflective of the biodiversity of insect in general. The list is heavy on butterflies and moths (35%), even though their percentage of total insect species is much lower (12%). Additionally, few of the listed species are from groups that are identified as economically important for conservation (with the possible exception of the American Burying beetle). So to begin to understand the reasons behind the seeming misrepresentation of insects on the Endangered Species list, we’ll first need to understand how species are defined on the list as “endangered” and “threatened.”

      According to Lugo (2007), the EPA defines an endangered species as, “[a] species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range other than a species of the Class Insecta determined by the Secretary [of the Interior] to constitute a pest,” and a threatened species is “[a] species which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” Now, there are debates over what constitutes a species and under what conditions does a species become endangered, but it should be clear that habitat plays an important role in the identification of an endangered species. In most policy-related cases, the habitat becomes the focus of conservation in order to protect an endangered species, and it is this aspect that often becomes an issue when people are prohibited from using their land because sensitive habitat is found on their property.

    But something stands out about the EPA’s definition of an endangered species, and I’m sure you noted it, as well. The ESA protects all those organism’s that may be going extinct except those that are classified as pests from Class Insecta. This is a huge statement because it builds into the framework of the ESA a loophole to allow for the eradication of insects deemed harmful to economic activity of human health. Could you imagine if someone petitioned to protect a pest like screw worm in the middle of an eradication program? Sure it might ultimately be thrown out, but the delay in the program and waste of taxpayer dollars would be draining. So by having this provision, the Secretary of the Interior is able to identify those insects that need to be suppressed or eradicated and remove them from consideration.

   Well, that’s all I have time for. I hope you all enjoyed reading. If you have any questions, please leave a comment or contact me at and I’ll try to answer them as quickly as I can. Thanks and have a good weekend, everyone.


Further reading...

Lugo, Ezquiel. 2007. Insect conservation under the endangered species act. Journal of Environmental Law and Policy.

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