Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Threatened, Endangered, Extinct in the Wild

I've been updating a guide to endangered species - I'm doing all the plants, 576 of them. The previous edition was published in 2001. When I accepted the job, I knew it could leave me depressed. The odds of conditions having improved in the past ten years were low. I've completed about 80 entries, mostly based on information published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, supplemented by the IUCN, and here are my initial reactions:

1. Conditions have not improved. Out of 80 species covered in the previous edition, maybe one or two have increased their numbers. Most have declined.

2. There is no current information on many endangered species. For a good percentage of the entries, I can't find any reports or data from the past decade. This is particularly common with Puerto Rican plants. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not published anything new on Crescentia portoricensis since 1991. Is it alive? Is it extinct? Who knows?

3. Some plants listed as endangered might actually be extinct. Example: the US Fish and Wildlife Service ranks Ochrosia kilaueaensis as endangered. The IUCN gives it a Red List status of Critically Endangered, but that ranking dates from 1998. No one has reported seeing one since the 1940s.

4. Some plants have inconsistent listings. Take the Hawaiian plant Cyanea pinnatifida. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a 5-year review in 2007 that maintained its endangered status. The IUCN Red List ranks it Extinct in the Wild. The last wild population consisted of single plant that died in 2001. The thing still exists in the Lyon Arboretum and some clones of the last survivor that have been planted in the Honoliuli Preserve. So I guess it's not exactly extinct. But you could hardly call it thriving.

5. Some plants have such small populations as to be extinct for all practical purposes. The entire population of the Island barberry, Berberis pinnata spp. insularis, consisted of four plants in 2007. Four plants growing in separate locations, which makes natural cross pollination harder.

What else? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has some enthusiastic workers, at least on behalf of particular species. It seems that some species are well loved and some largely ignored, or perhaps so inaccessible as to be impossible to study carefully. Kudos to the Federal Register for making all its publications available in PDF format. What I like most to see are 5-year Reviews published on individual species. These are usually quite thorough assessments of the current state of a species. I like to see them published since 2007 - there are even a few from 2010 and 2011, but 2007 and 2008 is the best I can usually hope for. What I don't like to see are calls for information for 5-year reviews on species - those are not at all helpful, and often a sign that no one has updated the information in two decades. I hate to have to rely on a 1991 endangered species ranking report for my "update".

The IUCN has a pretty nice website, with some good search capability. NatureServe is an excellent source for information on some plant species and published its own set of rankings. Those three are the best sources, especially the USFWS.

There are a few other sites that are of somewhat limited utility for my purposes because they tend to repeat USFWS reports but that have assembled some good data on plant biodiversity. The Center for Plant Conservation has some information. The USDA Plants Database is a good place to look for taxonomic synonyms - important since taxonomy is not the USFWS's strongest suit. Likewise the Integrated Taxonomic Information System, for which I have high hopes for the future - wouldn't it be great to have all taxonomy organized, and have all plants linked to an ITIS number that would allow garden and herbarium curators to update taxonomy at the touch of a button? There also the USDA's Agricultural Research Service's Germplasm Resources Information Network, which hasn't been terribly useful yet for this project but I expect it could be. Good old Wikipedia often has links to the most up-to-date information on particular species. The Hawaiian Ecosystems at Risk Project is keeping tabs on Hawaiian endangered species, of which there are many, many, many. So many.

The whole project is testimony to the value of digital information projects that assemble data and make it accessible. Our information on individual taxa is far from complete - but because all this data has been published online, I can see that, and can see what is known and what is not. Twenty years ago? No way could I have done this work with any accuracy. So three cheers for the world brain, which at least gives us a very clear picture of the progress of this catastrophe.