Recommended reading: Listed - Dispatches from America's Endangered Species Act

Have you ever wanted to walk on the trail of a Florida Panther? Ride a boat through the cypress forest in search of the Ivory billed woodpecker? Observe, up close, the escapades of Yellowstone’s wolves?  Take a trip to the front lines of endangered species recovery in the new book Listed:  Dispatches from America's Endangered Species Act and do just that.

In his most recent book, Joe Roman takes his readers with him on adventures across the country exploring some of our most iconic (and not so iconic) endangered wildlife.   Along the way he explores the ins and outs of the Endangered Species Act, including its impact on private landowners and its effectiveness.  He delves into the economic cost of protecting species, but also the economic cost of not protecting them.  Roman, a biologist himself, goes into the field with experts studying the whooping crane, the right whale, the Mississippi gopher frog and more.  In doing so he brings these endangered species – and the biologists working to save them – to life.

The book begins with Roman writing about David Etnier, an ichthyologist at the University of Tennessee who was expected to be called as an expert witness in a court case between the Environmental Defense Fund and the Tennessee Valley Authority over the construction of the Tellico Dam in 1973.  Etnier went to check out the river to prepare for his testimony and ended up discovering a new species. 

“I cradled my two hands around it and was able to just pick it out of the water.  I could tell that I had a darter that nobody had ever seen before.”

Etnier, who knew the darters of North America, having collected thousands of fish in Tennessee, walked over to a gravel island with a student.  They both looked at it.  “Wow, wow, this is incredible!” he said.

That new darter – named the snail darter – was added to the Endangered Species List and quickly became the center of controversy over the completion of the dam.  After the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the fish, Congress decided to vote it out of favor – exempting the dam from the Endangered Species Act with a rider on an appropriations bill.  Jimmy Carter reportedly called one of the lead attorneys in the case to apologize before signing the bill into law.  Though it came only 6 years after the creation of the Endangered Species Act, that rider would mark one of the few times that Congress has stepped in to override the Act’s protections in the last 40 years.  A recent rider that delisted wolves in the Northern Rockies marks another.

On the topic of wolves, Roman heads to Yellowstone where he discusses the “overwhelmingly successful” eradication of wolves from the West, their controversial reintroduction and touches on the perspectives of the ranchers, tourists, and local residents.  He also puts a face on another character:  the wolf.  By spending time with Rick McIntyre, who has spent every consecutive day for the past 10 years watching wolves (“Why would I go anywhere else?”), Roman is able to bring a personal familiarity to some of Yellowstone’s wolves.   

At the time, 21 was the alpha male, a strong and stable leader.  The new wolf [302] immediately created a sensation among the young females, strolling on the scene and striking a pose, as is the wolf’s way.   “He was like a biker who breezed into town or the bad boy in high school who all the girls wanted to date,” McIntyre said during a late-night drive back from the park.  “All the women loved him, even though they knew he was never going to stick around. “  But he stayed long enough to get a collar and an ID number.  “They couldn’t get enough of him”, McIntyre said.  “302 was God’s gift to female wolves….Originally, I was on 21’s side, but I came around.  I’m like 302.  I’m not married. I don’t have kids. I’m happy to be a beta male.”

In addition to the enjoyable species profiles, this book takes you on a fascinating journey of the history, philosophy and economics of our relationship with nature and what that means to us in the here and now.  Individually, Roman makes some interesting and somewhat surprising connections that emphasize just how interrelated all species are.  For example, he explains how protecting the fat threerdige mussel is linked to the fate of tupelo honey and how landowners with red cockaded woodpeckers on their property in North Carolina could learn some lessons from the Lyme disease outbreak in New York.  Taken together, Roman points out that all species play a role in the larger ecosystem that supports us all.

(Nature) is the provider of goods, food and fiber, and services – cycling nutrients, forming soils, supplying water, cleaning the air, controlling erosion, and capturing carbon.  It protects us from catastrophes: hurricanes, droughts, and floods.  Natural fire regimes provide a barrier against wildfires spreading into town, taking out the duff and the hot-burning hardwoods.  Wetlands form vast natural levees, absorbing storm surges and protecting against floods.  When we lose this ecological structure, we lose function – including those ecological services we need to survive.

In the end, this book is not just about endangered species, it’s about humanity.  Roman solidly makes the case that saving species is in our own best interest – it’s actually about saving ourselves.  As our own species continues to grow and contribute to the causes that endanger other species – including habitat loss and degradation, the introduction of invasive species and climate change – Roman reminds us that the future – our future – is in our hands.  The Endangered Species Act, as Roman points out early on, is a story about redemption – that is, if we want it to be. 

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