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William J. Van Devender

Some organizations have said that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) needs to stay like it is and others say it should be discarded. I disagree with both ways of thinking. Making it work better is certainly needed.

After all, the South has seven of the top ten states with the most listed species. Mississippi has 34 listed species and ranks 19 of the 52 states and territories.

Since the ESA was signed by Richard Nixon in 1973, over 1,300 species have been listed as threatened or endangered, yet only ten have been recovered and de-listed. During that same period, 35 listed species have been found to be extinct. If our health system had those kinds of success rates, we would need to make some changes.

Both the Clinton and current Bush administrations have argued that critical habitat, one of the most controversial components of the ESA, does not add to the conservation of a species.

Lands in Mississippi and the South are mostly owned by private landowners. The well-intentioned ESA sometimes results in hostility on the part of the landowner and damage to the species needing protection. Ability of government to control how property is used can make an enemy out of even the most harmless of birds, plants or other listed species.

The Act does not place an emphasis on recovering populations to get them off the list, or out of the hospital, so to speak. The Act should consider what habitat should be protected, restored and enhanced, how much is necessary, or if habitat is the limiting factor in recovery. Lacking that, litigation has replaced careful, peer-reviewed science in decision-making. This takes protection and recovery out of the hands of biologists and places it in those of lawyers.

Recent bills have recognized the importance of incentives, such as the proposed Threatened and Endangered Species Incentives Program. We have to update the ESA by providing incentives to forge solutions that both recover species and protect the private landowner.

Our current 1 percent success rate in recovering species is not good enough. We can do better.

At a fund-raiser after Hurricane Katrina, Morgan Freeman said, “We (Mississippi) will rise again. Mississippi crawled out of the rubble and helped their neighbors and got about the business of surviving.” Whether it is an endangered species or a human victim of Katrina, we now need to get about the business of recovery, not just surviving.

William J. Van Devender