New Scientific Study Ranks 10 Most Endangered States

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(12/20/1995) - Washington, D.C.: A new scientific study released by Defenders of Wildlife warns that ecosystems right here in the United States are just as endangered or more endangered than the well-publicized Amazon rainforest.

Ranging from the Florida Everglades to California grasslands, natural areas are at a "biological breaking point" all across the country, according to Endangered Ecosystems: A Status Report on America's Vanishing Habitat and Wildlife. The study identifies 10 states that have ecosystems at most risk: Florida, California and Hawaii (tied), Georgia, North Carolina and Texas (tied), South Carolina and Virginia (tied), and finally Alabama and Tennessee (tied).

Defenders' President Rodger Schlickeisen says, "We're at an ecological crossroads. The battle for the ecological health of at least 10 states will be won or lost by actions taken over the next decade. This study enables us to foresee where the endangered species 'trainwrecks' will occur and to understand that the casualties will extend beyond wildlife over the long term because our own life-support systems are at risk. We hope this study will help steer Congress away from the collision course it is now taking by trying to dismantle the Endangered Species Act and other laws protecting wildlife, public lands, and other habitat."

Endangered Ecosystems represents the first ranking of ecosystems and states based on extensive data on the extent of decline of natural ecosystems, imperiled species, development trends, and other factors.

In preparation for more than a year, the 132-page illustrated report by noted scientists F. Reed Noss and Robert L. Peters amplifies the conclusions of a United Nations "Global Biodiversity Assessment," released in November 1995, as they apply to the United States.

Dr. Peters says, "Endangered Ecosystems is a science-based report card on our nation's ecological health. Unfortunately, some ecosystems get low marks through no fault of their own." "Habitat destruction in all states is reaching the point at which the nation faces the loss of hundreds of natural ecosystems - ranging from California's ancient redwood forests to longleaf pine forests in the Southeast to beach dune habitats along the East Coast."

The Defenders' study identifies 21 ecosystems that are most endangered, rating them according to four factors. Ecosystems rank high on Defenders' risk scale if they have been greatly reduced from their pre-European extent, if they are now very small, if they have large numbers of imperiled species, or if the continued threat to their existence is high.

The Southeast region of the United States is particularly hard hit, but endangered ecosystems are found in every region of the nation - including Northwestern grasslands and savannas, coastal communities in the lower 48 states and Hawaii, and Midwestern tallgrass prairie and wetlands. Endangered forest ecosystems types include ancient forests not only in the Pacific Northwest but also those in the eastern and Great Lake regions, as well as Southern Appalachian spruce-fir forests and Southwestern riparian forests.

Besides identifying which ecosystems are the most endangered, states were ranked with an "overall risk index" according to how many endangered ecosystems they contain (ecosystem risk index), how many imperiled species they harbor (species risk index), and how much development they face (development risk index). Most of the states are those in which rapid growth is occurring.

The magnitude of decline is indicated by many statistics for the nation and state-by-state given in the report. For example:

  • The nation has lost 117 million acres of wetlands -- more than 50 percent of what we started with;

  • The Northwest has lost 25 million acres -- 90 percent -- of its ancient forest;

  • California alone has lost nearly 22 million acres of native grasslands;

  • Even areas preserved as public lands are becoming increasingly fragmented. Our national forests alone contain nearly 360,000 miles of roads, more than eight times the mileage of the Interstate Highway System.

  • In the West, 270 million acres of public rangeland are affected by livestock grazing -- nine of every ten acres.

Defenders' President Schlickeisen notes that, "The challenge of protecting ecosystems at this point is more political than scientific. The Endangered Species Act is under direct attack even though its first stated purpose is to `provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which threatened and endangered species may be conserved.'"

Defenders notes that House Resources Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), Senate Wildlife Subcommittee Chairman Dirk Kempthorne (R- Idaho) and Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Slade Gorton (R- WA) have introduced bills that would make this law essentially voluntary. Moreover, the FY '96 Interior Appropriations bill that the President vetoed recently would require a continuing moratorium on all new species listings and critical habitat designations under the Endangered Species Act.

Schlickeisen notes that, "Despite the fact that scientists are warning us to save our last ecosystems, the United States Government is unable because of a congressionally imposed moratorium to list key indicator species like the lynx and Florida black bear, and unable to protect the critical habitat for more than 800 threatened and endangered species."

Dr. Peters points out that ecosystems not only provide shelter for wildlife and generate tourism income but also provide basic ecological services such as water recycling, creation of soil, waste filtering, and oxygenation of air and water.

Dr. Peters is Defenders' conservation biologist and co-editor with Thomas Lovejoy of Global Warming and Biological Diversity. Co- author F. Reed Noss is an internationally noted research scientist and editor of Conservation Biology who also co-authored a National Biological Service report that provided part of the groundwork for this study.

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Contact(s):

Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270