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SOS Rhino : In the News : Species' survival depends on the public's voice

Species' survival depends on the public's voice

  By Terrie Williams
Tue Nov 15, 6:59 AM ET
Yahoo! News

In 1989, as government lawyers tried to assess the environmental damage caused by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the American public was asked: How much was an Alaskan sea otter worth?

The presumption was that the existence of wild animals, even in such a remote corner of the USA, was the right of every citizen, and that the public deserved compensation should these animals be harmed. Eventually, a price tag of $89,000 per oiled sea otter was used to calculate part of the $1 billion settlement against Exxon (now the ExxonMobil Corp.).

The public is again being asked how much wild animals are worth. Based on proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act approved by the House of Representatives in September, the answer is, not much. At least not to the average American. Rather than businesses being charged for harming wildlife, the proposal would compensate developers and farmers on whose lands endangered species had the misfortune to reside.

Otter protection

Ironically, about the same time of the House vote, the newest species to make the threatened species list was the Alaskan sea otter. Once numbering more than 300,000, these marine mammals have dwindled to a few dozen in some areas of coastal Alaska and to outright extinction in others. Using the Exxon Valdez price tag, that amounts to $26.7 billion in missing sea otters, or $90 for every man, woman and child living in the USA.

Who should be compensated for such enormous losses? Theoretically, every citizen, and that alone should be cause for concern - and action.

For any other commodity or resource, the rarer the item, the higher its value. The Hope Diamond or a Van Gogh portrait is priceless. So, too, the rarer the species the greater should be its worth to every American, not simply businessmen, politicians and property owners.

The dismantling of environmental laws - such as the Endangered Species Act that still faces action in the Senate - risks the ultimate folly.

Americans are facing a suite of decisions regarding the fate of wild animals. The proposed changes to the Environmental Protection Act, the upcoming reauthorization of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the relaxation of laws associated with offshore oil exploration could have dire wildlife consequences. Yet the public has remained silent on these issues, and the non-response has been taken as approval by politicians.

Voice of reason

With the privilege of heritage comes responsibility. Every American is the voice of wild animals. In the past, the collective American voice demanded dolphin-safe tuna, freed Willy (aka Keiko the killer whale), instigated the rescue of oiled otters after the Exxon Valdez spill, and created laws ensuring the protection of wildlife. Americans proved that through writing, blogging, art, film, TV, protests and phoning, the average citizen could "save the planet" - albeit one small piece at a time.

Without those environmental laws, we have little more than the naive hope that left to their own devices, sea otters will somehow survive.

Unfortunately, the level of human progress has become so pervasive and the impacts so potentially devastating that standing silently on the shoreline is no longer enough. History has demonstrated that the public's voice can make a difference, but the time to be heard is now.

Terrie Williams is a professor of wildlife biology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, the 1989 director of the Valdez Sea Otter Rescue Center, and the author of the upcomingSpoiled: When Oil Men Dare Mother Nature.

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