Time To Update the Endangered Species Act
Michael Soulé is a cofounder of the Society for Conservation Biology and served as its first president in 1986. The Society has over 5,000 members and publishes the scholarly journal Conservation Biology. He is also a cofounder of the Wildlands Project, an organization dedicated to reconnecting and restoring wildlands. Michael received a Ph.D. from Stanford studying with Paul Ehrlich and worked his way up the academic ranks to Chair of Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, before taking an early retirement.
There have been heated arguments among ecologists about how ecosystems are regulated: in simplistic terms whether ecosystems are shaped by the availability of vegetation (from bottom up), or by the activity of predators (from the top down). This may look to a non ecologist like fighting over whether it's better to open an egg from the little end or the big end, but in fact knowing how an ecosystem works is essential information for managers. It is clear that some species play a big role in shaping what the ecosystem will look like and how it works: take out the otters and by a biological chain reaction, the kelp beds disappear. There are many places where a species interacts strongly with its environment and its removal disrupts the function of the ecosystem. This gives new depth to the idea of species recovery. It is not enough to have a symbolic recovery, a few wolves here, a couple condors there. If they are so rare that they don't interact with other species and the ecosystem, they are still functionally extinct.
We spoke with Professor Soulé about some of the changes in our understanding of ecosystems and what that means at the practical level of everyday management.
[N.B. The opinions expressed in this interview are not necessarily those of the Board of Environmental Review, but they ought to be.]