National Geographic : 1995 Mar
THEIR HOUSE OR OUR HOUSE South of Los Angeles the implacable sprawl of single-family homes has reached critical mass. Or so think local environ mentalists, who are challenging new developments to safe guard dwindling par cels of coastal sage scrub, habitat of the California gnat catcher. Increasingly, developers compro mise by setting aside land for imperiled species. in the nearby Mojave Desert, frag mentation of fragile habitat has added to the woes of the once hardy desert tor toise-a threatened species since 1990. prevent extinction. Here was nothing less than a rudimentary bill of rights for nonhu mans, an attempt to guarantee a future for as many as possible, even if doing so required real sacrifice on our part. No commitment of this order had ever been made before. With each passing year this milestone has come to touch more of our nation's inhabitants-plant, animal, and taxpayer alike. Whereas the 1973 list of threatened and endangered species in the U. S. had 109 names on it, the total is now well over 900 (more than 1,400 counting foreign spe cies). Waiting in line are 3,700 officially recognized candidates, which may qualify for ESA protection but have not yet undergone a full review. The bottleneck has been the lack of money. During the first 18 years, annual funding for the endangered species program averaged 39 Dead or Alive: The EndangeredSpecies Act million dollars, about enough to build a mile of urban interstate highway, or about 16 cents a year from every taxpayer-one dime, a nickel, and a penny toward a safety net for the 150,000 species estimated to inhabit the United States. BUT THERE ARE OTHER COSTS to soci ety in the form of business delayed or foregone. Many an additional dollar is spent complying with regu lations and planning more carefully than we have in the past. As the world's most potent single piece of environmental legislation, the Endangered Species Act is reshaping the way our society lives upon the land, and it is fuel ing bitter debate over economic balance, na ture's balance, property rights, and the limits to growth. With the act coming up for its sixth reauthorization in Congress and both bills and lawsuits being advanced to weaken its core provisions, conservationists worry that the endangered species program itself may be endangered. To generalize about scarce creatures and the situations they face is not easy, for they are as varied as life itself. My journey to become better informed about the act, its consequences, and its future lasted more than a year and took me from snowcapped backcountry to vacant lots in cities. En route I pulled in to a roadside business in the old mining town of Beatty, Nevada. I thought the spring-fed swimming pool out back just might hold an Amargosa toad or two; the entire planet has only three or four dozen. "You came to a brothel lookin' for what?" asked the ladies in the parlor. Yet they gave me a bucket and a strainer from the kitchen, and I went off toad catching with a guide wearing lacy black garters. I caught-and released-three of the amphib ians lounging around poolside. At least when I was searching for whales at San Ignacio, no one was whispering "You get all kinds" behind my back. Wildlife biologist DOUGLAS H. CHADWICK is the author of A Beast the Color of Winter and The Fate of the Elephant. A frequent contributor to NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, he most recently wrote "The Harlequin Duck" for the November 1993 issue. Nebraska photographer JOEL SARTORE has crossed the country for GEOGRAPHIC stories that include "Federal Lands" (February 1994) and "Eagles on the Rise" (November 1992).