Species of Interest
Why should we care about threatened and endangered species?
The earth’s ecosystems, and to a large degree its climate, is maintained by its plants and animals. When everything is working together in balance, the earth is a plentiful provider for all creatures.
But, when it is out of balance, food supplies can be threatened and conditions that sustain life, like clean air or water, can change, causing great stress to all organisms in that area.
Threatened and endangered species are the modern-day canary in a coal mine, indicating some part of the environment has become unbalanced.
Also, once an imbalance begins to have an effect on a plant or animal type, that effect will usually create a cascade of added imbalances, both in other organisms that rely on the organism for part of its life cycle, and in the economy.
For instance, 35% of the world’s food production is dependent on animals to pollinate crops. For many years, experts have been warning that the number of bees around the world have gotten smaller. Since these honey-making insects are one of the most common and efficient animal pollinators, the continued decline in the number of bees will result in a declining food supply for the world.
This decline also poses economic impacts. Studies by the US Department of Agriculture have found that bee pollination, which is currently free of charge to farmers and ranchers, would cost about $15 billion per year for the US farming industry if there were no bees to provide the free work. So, not only does a decline in the number of bees affect the amount of the food supply and types of crops that can be produced; but, in order to continue to grow the crops that require pollinators, farmers and ranchers will have to develop new ways to pollinate them, which will make food more expensive.
Additionally, many plants have medicinal properties that serve as the foundation for many medicines used regularly throughout the world today. For instance, aspirin is modeled after naturally occurring acids found in a handful of plants, including the bark of the white willow tree, and vinca plants. And, a substance drawn from a periwinkle vinca plant found in Madagascar is used to treat cancers like Hodgkin’s disease. So, if a plant species is allowed to become extinct, humans could lose the base for the next great treatment for human illness, and that course of treatment would be lost forever.
Determining the reason for an ecosystem imbalance that is causing the number of plants or animals in a species to decline allows us to begin working to correct the imbalance so that the planet may continue to provide clean air and water, a reliable food supply, and a positive economy. When we work to save threatened and endangered species, we may just be saving ourselves.
What is the difference between a threatened, endangered, candidate and rare species?
When changes in the world’s ecosystem are noticed, such as farmers seeing fewer bees pollinating their crops, scientists begin research to determine what might be causing the changes.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and several universities perform monitoring of plants, animals, fish and insects in the Brazos River basin.
To determine exactly how much trouble a species might be in, scientists on both a state and federal level can place a species in categories that note how close to extinction that species may be. These categories were established in 1973 by the US Congress through the Endangered Species Act to protect plants, animals and insects, allowing them and their ecosystem time to recover.
The federal law created three main categories where a species in danger may be placed: threatened, endangered, and candidate.
A plant or animal can be protected at both the state and federal level at the same time. The level of protection provided by state and federal regulations is different, with federal laws providing four categories that include stronger protections and the state level providing two categories.
On a state level, the Texas Legislature included laws in the Natural Resources Code that allow the state to list a species as threatened or endangered.
The definitions of threatened and endangered at the state and federal level are similar:
- Threatened species are plants or animals that are likely to become endangered in the near future.
- Endangered species are plants or animals in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.
Two additional categories are included on the federal level. A candidate species is a plant or animal that has been determined by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as having the potential for being listed as either threatened or endangered, but that the agency does not have the resources to move forward at that time.
Rare species are plants or animals that are uncommon and are often found in small numbers or a limited number of areas. They may also be species that are not often seen or documented. A rare species may also be identified as threatened or endangered; but, being identified as a rare does not necessarily indicate that the species is in danger.
Currently, the Brazos River Authority, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Texas Parks and Wildlife perform monitoring to assess known populations of threatened and endangered species. Additionally, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and TPWD perform surveys to identify new populations of listed freshwater mussels and fish.
How does a species become listed as threatened or endangered?
In Texas, animals or plants that are in danger can be protected in one of two ways.
First, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department may list a species as threatened or endangered (frequently referred to as T&E species) under the laws established by the state legislature included in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Code. Secondly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may list a species as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, a federal law passed by the United States Congress in 1973 aimed at protecting and recovering imperiled species and the ecosystems on which they depend.
A plant or animal can be protected at both the state and federal levels at the same time. The level of protection provided by state and federal regulations differs, with federal protections being much more restrictive.
Federal protections of T&E species prohibit the:
- “Take” of a T&E species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service defines “Take” as “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, collect or attempt to engage in any such conduct.”
- In addition to protecting the plant or animal from direct harm through “Take,” the Endangered Species Act also allows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to control activities that have a federal nexus (require a federal permit, occur on property or waters of the U.S. or receive federal funding), if it impacts the species essential behaviors, like breeding, feeding or sheltering.
Texas protections of T&E species state that:
- No person may capture, trap, take, or kill, or attempt to capture, trap, take, or kill, threatened or endangered fish or wildlife.
- No person may: (1) take, possess, transport, or sell an endangered, threatened, or protected native plant from the public lands of this state unless that person has been awarded a valid scientific plant permit authorizing such activity, or
(2) take, possess, transport, or sell an endangered, threatened, or protected native plant for commercial purposes from private lands unless that person has been awarded a valid commercial plant permit authorizing such activity.