Charismatic Megafauna: How These Species Are Influencing the Endangered Species Act of 1973

Categories: Endangered Species

In 1973 during the Nixon administration, dozens of key environmental laws were passed, including the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act. During this time public sentiment for the environment was on the forefront of concern. President Richard Nixon’s speech the day the Endangered Species Act was put into effect, embodies the shift of concern America placed on the environment, “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.

It is a many-faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists, and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans” (Richard Nixon). Congress originally passed this legislation after viewing a series of images of the great animals of the west including the grizzly bear, wolf, bison, and bald eagle, our national treasures. The public’s concern for preserving these animals is rooted in its concern for keeping the beautiful wild animals our country identifies as its own.

Controversy exists as to whether or not the ESA is working as intended. The U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service, one of the main agencies in charge of regulating the ESA, found “only nine percent of those listed under the Endangered Species Act are improving and 30 percent of those listed species are stable” (Simmons). The service also noted that since the Act was passed in 1973, only 33 species have been delisted and of those, seven became extinct, twelve species should not have been listed in the first place and of the 14 that remain, three include a kangaroo species in Australia that the Australian government recovered to a sustainable population (Simmons).

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Although numbers may not be the most effective measurement of success, they are clear indicators that the there is room to improve the implementation of the act. The ten species remaining as well as those noted for high success rates have one key similarity, they all identify as charismatic megafauna.

Charismatic megafauna are species are vulnerable, attractive and distinct, often picked by environmental organizations to promote campaigns. These are typically large animals that the public can easily identify; such as the bald eagle, grey wolf, whooping crane, grey whale, red wolf, and peregrine falcon. There can be a practical advantage to using charismatic species to promote environmental concern, however, one must choose wisely. If advocacies groups work with scientists and find charismatic species that can help their greater ecosystems, the use of these species can be effective. Currently, animals are being used that are not meeting these goals and thus taking money away from other species that need it. With the failing economy, the U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife service must strategically find charismatic animals that meet the needs of the sentimental public as well as the experts. The purpose of the Endangered Species Act is stated in Section 2(b) “provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved, to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species and threatened species” (Endangered Species Act 1973). The goal is clear conserve not only the specie but the ecosystem in which the species is a part of as well. The key pieces of legislation, that implement the goal of the Endangered Species Act can be broken down into three sections, Section 4, 7 and 9. Section 4 of the ESA is to issue species as either endangered or threatened.

There is a small difference behind the meaning of the two, endangered means those in danger of being extinct throughout all or a significant part of their range while threatened species are vulnerable to becoming endangered in the near future (Endangered Species Act 1973). The distinction relies primarily on the population of an animal. This difference can be seen between the panda bear and the polar bear. The panda bear, listed as endangered, has a population size of around 1,000 in the world where as the polar bear, listed as threatened, is said to have a population size of about 20,000-25,000. Section 7 of the Act commands federal agencies not to take any action that would harm a listed species. This section has been fairly controversial because many feel that the government has overstepped its boundaries in protecting a species. For private landowners they can be fined up to $100,000 for disturbing a species if even just one is living on or near their land. The government has even gone so far in the protection of an endangered species by stopping projects that started before the original legislation was passed. A small fish called the snail darter, received a lot of public attention when the building of dam in Tennessee quickly was shut down to save the species. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, in Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill. The building of the dam began in 1967 on the Little Tennessee River, the snail darter was found upstream. After Congress passed the ESA, they stopped the project because the resulting reservoir would flood out the snail darter’s habitat possibly leading the fish to extinction. The decision to trump prior decisions proves the strength of the Endangered Species Act (Guerrero).

Section 9 prohibits the “taking” of endangered species. Taking has a variety of meanings in this piece of legislation such as, harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, bound, kill, trap, capture or collect. Basically if a species is endangered the only interaction a human can have with the species is to simply look at it. Many species on the list were put on as a result of human interaction. The piping plover for example used to be captured in the 19th century to decorate women’s hats, after a restriction was placed on the species the populations were once again thriving (U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife). The goal of the ESA was originally designed to help single species but after the act was passed amendments were made to help conserve greater biodiversity for each specie. After the ESA was passed in 1973, a number of pivotal provisions have been made to strengthen the act. One of which establishes critical habitat for the species added to Section (3), 5A. Critical habitat protects everything from water, land and other species in the habitat. The Taylor Study which was a study done in 2005 that measured the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act for the Center of Biology found, not surprisingly, that the more protection a species had under the act the less likely the species was to be declining in population. According to the Taylor Study, preserving critical habitat is key to a species survival and recovery (Taylor). In theory, using flagship species, as the main source of funding for an entire ecosystem would be ideal, yet there are not always easy short cuts. The charismatic megafauna, which only hold a small percentage of species on the list, are generating a lot of funds but are doing very little to help these new goals of the act.

Conservation efforts for these charismatic megafauna can often be rooted in either scientific or emotional evaluations. However, when it comes to these well-known charismatic species, the public sentiment is devoted to keeping them around for their attractiveness to a specific region; take the panda bear for example, this species is the symbol of China. The World Wildlife foundation in 1961 knew this when they picked it for their logo, “at the time Chi Chi, the only giant panda in the Western world, had won the hearts of all that saw her at the London Zoo in the United Kingdom. She was a rare animal, like her wild panda cousins in China, and her form and color were the ideal basis for an attractive symbol” (World Wildlife Found Website). In theory, focusing conservation efforts on certain flagship species is cost effective if by protecting these species wider biodiversity will also be protected and conserved. The panda bear, has generated a lot of funds, and has protected 2.5 million acres of China, however, there is a strong debate as to whether the panda is taking away funds from species that could repopulate if more time and attention was placed on them. United Kingdom TV naturalist Chris Peckham interviewed in theguardian news, displays the bleak truth of the panda bears limitations: “The panda is a species of bear that has gone herbivorous and eats a type of food that isn’t all that nutritious, and that dies out sporadically. It is susceptible to various diseases, and, up until recently, it has been almost impossible to breed in captivity. They’ve also got a very restricted range, which is ever decreasing, due to encroachment on their habitat by the Chinese population. Perhaps the panda was already destined to run out of time. This genetic difficulty for panda bears to reproduce is an issue no emotional conservationists can fix. Species that the public cares about are often the ones of least concern to the experts. Critics claim that these key species are often ill defined and unproven in practice and may detract from wider ecosystem conservation priorities (Williams). There is an ongoing debate between conservationists and conservation biologists as to whether using a single species is effective oppose to protecting entire ecosystems.

Through research it is clear that these species provide a strategic socioeconomic role rather then an ecological one. Take the African antelope for example; this large mammal was used as revenue raising flagship specie for the Kasanka National Park in Zambia. The park was becoming very run down and in order to raise money, they started using antelope as their logo for tourist attraction. Eventually whatever funds were collected for the antelope were used to make considerable changes to public amenities in the park. The antelope was being used to protect the park as oppose to the park protecting the antelope. Scientists and the public could argue that using the antelope was not a fine use of raising specie awareness when the goal was to improve the park not the well-being of the antelope (Williams & Dublin). The bald eagle, our country’s national symbol, has been greatly misused as a listed species on the Endangered Species Act because it was receiving funds from U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service years after the population was flourishing. The bald eagle was listed soon after the Endangered Species Act was passed. The population of the bald eagle was less then 500 mating pairs. The eagle was at such a low population due to an insecticide being used by the government called DDT, which thinned out the shell of the eagles resulting in premature deaths. Once DDT stopped being used, the eagle was back to its thriving population and reached its population goal of 3,000 in 1994. The bald eagle was kept on the list for another 12 years because it was receiving high funding for ESA as well as creating an image of success for the Act. The bald eagle has been called “the best possible public relation tool for the Endangered Species Act,” generating 9.3 million dollars in its last fiscal year on the list. The Bald Eagle was not taken off the list until a homeowner in Minnesota pressed charges for misuse of the Act.

The case involved a Minnesota homeowner who wished to build residential homes on his seventy-acre property. If he decided to build he would be fined $100,000 for disturbing a bald eagle and its nest that was living in a tree on his land. The homeowner argued that the bald eagle had overachieved its original population goal and was at a thriving population, therefore, should have been taken off the list years ago. After a two-year court decision, the bird was finally taken off the list. This was a clear ethical dilemma that the Endangered Species Act was abusing (NewsHour Extra: Bald Eagle May Fly off Endangered List). The bald eagle, which was once endangered, was kept on far longer then it should have been because it was promoting the success and bringing in money for the ESA. The bald eagle appealed to not only environmentalists but, patriots as well thus making it one of the best tools for generating money. However, other species should have been protected during this 12-year extension the eagle had. Another species debate was over the grizzly bear that resides in the greater Yellowstone area and whether or not the animal should be delisted.

According to the Endangered Species Act under recovery plans a specie is to be taken off the list once it reaches its recovery levels, yet the grizzly bear similar to the bald eagle had been kept on the list even after the population reached its set goal of 300 bears. Under Section 4 (f) of the Recovery Plan in the Endangered Species Act it states, “objective, measurable criteria which, when met, would result in a determination that the species be removed from the list” (Endangered Species Act 1973). The legislation is clear under the recovery plan, that when a species reaches its set goals it is determined whether or not it should be delisted. Animals, according to this statute should no longer be funded under the ESA once they reach their goal. The grizzly bear was set to be delisted when it reached a population of 300 in the Wyoming area; the grizzly was kept for a few years after when it eventually reached a population of 600, twice that of the goal (Servheen). The debate, which left the grizzly bear on the list later then was planned, was rooted in a disagreement between wildlife and conservation biologists. Wildlife biologists, those who often meet the desires of hunters and fisherman, believed that because the bear reached its population goal of 300 bears, it would be unethical to keep the bear on this list. One wildlife biologists argues, “The grizzly bears have been classified as threatened since 1975…An Endangered species is listed as a species that is likely to become extinct, and a threatened species is likely to become endangered, the grizzly bear is neither of those” (Servheen). It is clear that wildlife biologists are sticking to the literal interpretation of the Endangered Species Act.

The opposing camp is found among conservation biologist, many who work in consolation with environmental groups. These biologists are siding on the ere of caution, claiming that global warming will significantly effect these large mammals in the future and Endangered Species Act must work to offset those impacts (PBS). One of the grizzly bears main source of protein, the whitebark pine, is said to be diminishing because of global warming, conservationists believe that attention must be placed on the entire ecosystem, rather than the narrower focus because the grizzly will lose the gains it has painfully won during the last 30 years (Servheen). Louisa Wilcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council agrees that the grizzly has made considerable strides in population gain, however, she worries the large bear will go into a “tailspin”, she is the voice of what conservation biologists truly believe (Miller). The grizzly bear is the center of controversy for endangered species because it has a symbolic symbol just as the bald eagle. Not only is it one of the main tourist attractions for those visiting Yellowstone National Park but also it has become an identity of the west, from the time when Lewis & Clark traveled to the Pacific Coast first siting these enormous creatures. How does the Endangered Species Act compete with America’s interest opposed to a scientific and policy standpoint of limited time and budget? The moral dilemma in this situation is whether ESA should be allowed to justify a species for a longer period of time under the Endangered Species Act. If so, this will only allow for animals that the public cares about to be funded, even after the species reaches its target goal.

In theory, it would be ideal to protect all living species that have any potential threat of extinction. But in order to satisfy the goals of every listed species, these charismatic megafauna cannot be listed later then their recovery plan intends. One consequence of George W. Bush’s administration, in an effort to save money, is that species were only listed under an “emergency listing” when they were on the very brink of extinction as oppose to protecting/funding them before the threat was so high. Some species have vanished, the Lake Sammamish Kokanee, a landlocked sockeye salmon, went extinct in 2001, under the Bush Administration, after being denied an emergency listing. As well as genetically pure Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits disappeared in 2006 after the Department of Interior declined to protect critical habitat for the species. Where there is debate for a recovered species to remain under the Endangered Species Act, many species are quickly becoming extinct. According to an article in the Washington Post, “Administration officials- estimate that more than 280 domestic species should be on the list but have been “precluded” because of more, pressing priorities” (Eilperin). It is hard to justify an extension for cute animals when many species are not being protected. Protecting these species is an expensive proposition and as seen, if not done wisely species can die out. In 2007, the Endangered Species Act spent, $1,537,283,091 toward conserving threatened and endangered species in 2007, plus another, $126,086,999 in land purchases for habitat preservation (Platt).

The species that received the most money in 2007 where the Chinook salmon whom received more than $165 million, the Grey Wolves received $4.3 million, Indiana Bat received $6.3 million the Florida Panther with $4.7 million and the Bald Eagles (delisted soon after) received $9.3 million dollars in conservation funds. The vast majority of species received less then $100,000, seven species got $100 or less and three endangered species including the Saimaa seal did not receive a single dollar (Platt). It is possible that some of these well known species do need higher funding to protect yet knowing that the Bald Eagle was at three times its recovery goal while receiving 9.3 million dollars does not add up. Consumer behavior shows that the public is more willing to send donations to an organization that has a single image of an animal or hurt child as oppose to an image with a large number of animals/or children.

This is because people believe that their money will go straight to that small starving child that they first saw. This concept has been used throughout most environmental ads. One of the most common images that Greenpeace has used for their campaign against climate change is the image of a bear sitting alone on an ice shield (Protecting the Polar Bear). This image seems to be an easy one for the public to sympathize with. Other easily identifiable advertisements are the World Wildlife Fund, which uses a panda bear; the Defenders of Wildlife that captures the lone grey wolf and even National Geographic, which has spearheaded a campaign “cause an uproar” for wild cats. This is a popular way to raise awareness and environmental concern. However, there are better ways for non-profits to use these animals and apply them to saving greater biodiversity. There are key changes to be made to improve the use of these charismatic species for advertising. The general idea is that when picking a species, an environmental activist group should consider co-occurrence of a species. This is to weigh in what other species are present in this flagship species area. For example by protecting the spotted owl, what other species will directly be helped in the Northwest area. In the scientific article, Selecting Effective Umbrella Species, author Erica Fleishman breaks down some key species that are not effective for catering to wider biodiversity.

She explains animals such as the panther, or grizzly bear have a wide range habitat and can compromise wide range efficacy. She states, “species with large home ranges are often habitat generalists, and it may be impossible or unnecessary to protect all locations where they occur. Secondly, species richness tends to vary on a local scale” (Fleishman). In order to protect a wide range of biodiversity, scientists and environmental advocates alike must look to find specie rich areas. This will allow for a more effective strategy in protecting a wider range of species. Another practical method in choosing a charismatic species for advertising is to find a species that is sensitive to human disturbance, such as the spotted owl. The spotted owls habitat was destroyed from human beings cutting down forests that left the owl to become endangered. If by saving this owl’s forested land, not only could the owl be saved but other forest species.

This is a an easier method then finding an animal that is not directly effected by humans, such as all species who face endangerment because of global warming like the polar bear. That is too broad of an environmental concern to cover for promoting the Endangered Species Act. Science, a journal of scientific research published an article in 2005 called, What’s Wrong With the Endangered Species Act, which explains that recovery of many species is a distant goal: “In 2002, just 6% were improving, and only 2% have accomplished more than 75% of the goals spelled out in their recovery plans” (Stokstad). It is concerning that the Endangered Species Act, noted as one of the greatest environmental pieces of legislation our country has, is not reaching its full potential. Charismatic species have shown to raise public awareness on environmental conservation, yet it is time to use these species for greater biodiversity. Since funding has shown a consistent trend for these attractive animals’ environmental agencies need to seek out only species that are useful for protecting other species. By refining these goals, funding for cute animals wont come at a cost to the other 1,000 species on the list. The Endangered Species Act has proven to help keep many species from going extinct, but by making practical changes in advertising species will not only improve but better yet, recover.

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Charismatic Megafauna: How These Species Are Influencing the Endangered Species Act of 1973. (2022, Jul 13). Retrieved from

Charismatic Megafauna: How These Species Are Influencing the Endangered Species Act of 1973
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