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Wednesday, 17 October 2007 00:00

Recovering a ghost

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NBC News did a segment of their “Fleecing of America” on the $27.8 million proposed by the recovery plan, which prompted a flurry of emails in the blogosphere and across birding listservs noting that $27.8 million was a paltry sum — a mere drop in the bucket. Well, yes and no.

I agree that $27.8 million over a 5-year period in this day and age is not a jaw-dropping sum when it comes to the U.S. budget. But this only points out how woefully under-funded the budget is when it comes to the protection of endangered and threatened species.

Dr. Gary Graves, curator of birds at the Smithsonian Institution and a member of the Biology Working Group on the official Ivory billed Woodpecker Recovery Team helps put this in perspective. According to Graves “... funds allocated for Ivory-bill work in FY2008 ($4.9 million) equal about 3.3 percent of the entire federal budget (~$150 million) for Endangered and Threatened species across the United States. There are 1351 endangered or threatened species in the USA (another 278 species are ‘candidates’). Omitting the Ivory bill and the candidate species, each of the species on the official list gets about 0.07 percent of the federal pie earmarked for endangered and threatened species.”

The ivory billed will be receiving nearly 50 times the money allocated for the recovery of the red-cockaded woodpecker or the California condor or the spotted owl or the sea otter, etc., etc. And these are species we know exist. These are species people can actually photograph and video and study.

And Graves points out, “... it’s a zero sum game as far as the federal government is concerned. There is no new money flowing into the system. In fact, the budget for endangered species cannot keep up with inflation. If you spend more money searching for Ivory bills, you have less money for other species with pressing legitimate needs ....”

Graves also touches on another note that resonates with me: “Despite the enormous academic and financial incentives to obtain such evidence, nobody has been able to locate an Ivory bill that can be shown to someone else. That is telling fact. Confirmation bias (the tendency to interpret data in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and desires) and Groupthink (where critical thinking and skepticism are set aside so that the group can reach consensus and avoid conflict) have almost certainly played an important role from the beginning. As depressing as it may be, each passing month without definitive proof makes these dark possibilities a little more likely. Regrettably, it may already be too late to prevent the Ivory bill phantasma from becoming the ‘cold fusion’ debacle of conservation biology. This spectacle will undoubtedly damage the credibility of the USFWS and the participating NGO’s and make conservation work a tougher sell with state and federal legislators and the general public.”

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