A Status Report on America's Vanishing Habitat and Wildlife
by Reed F. Noss and Robert L. Peters
December 20, 1995
*This critically important paper has sadly
been removed from the Defenders web site.
Upon contact they offered no valid reason for why and
seemed evasive about the paper's present location.*
If possible, please make copies of it and disperse it to
those who are concerned with our Environment.
circa 2000 - Defenders of Wildlife
Recently discovered complete version of this paper here:
Endangered Ecosystems: A Status Report
Robert L. Peters is a former Defenders of Wildlife conservation biologist who
holds a Ph.D. from Stanford, coedited Global Warming and Biological Diversity.
Reed F. Noss, editor of Conservation Biology and science director of the
Wildlands Project, was the coauthor of Saving Nature's Legacy, sponsored by
Defenders of Wildlife.
Since the time of European colonization, millions of acres of North America's
natural ecosystems have been destroyed, degraded and replaced by agriculture and
concrete. Iowa's tallgrass prairies, once habitat for wolves and buffalo, are
now fields of corn. California's golden bear, a subspecies of grizzly, can now
be found only on the state flag. The native wildflowers and bunchgrasses of
California have dwindled and the hills are now covered with wild wheat, thistles
and mustard from Europe and Asia. The entire south Florida landscape, including
the Everglades and pine rockland habitat for endangered Key deer, is so
seriously degraded that we have identified this entire area as the most
endangered ecosystem in the nation.
The magnitude of decline is staggering. For example, the nation has lost 117
million acres of wetlands - more than 50 percent of what was here when Europeans
arrived; the Northwest has lost 25 million acres - 90 percent - of its ancient
forest; California alone has lost 22 million acres of native grasslands. What
little untouched natural landscape remains is becoming increasingly fragmented.
Our national forests alone contain nearly 360,000 miles of roads, more than
eight times as much as the Interstate Highway System. In the West, 270 million
acres of public rangeland are affected by livestock grazing - nine of every ten
acres. Although some loss of ecosystems is an unavoidable price of development,
the destruction has advanced far beyond what is necessary, because of poor
planning, emphasis on short-term economic gain and misplaced government
The ultimate driving force behind this degradation is America's population,
which is growing by 2.6 million every year, equivalent to a city the size of
Chicago. Total U.S. population grew nearly 10 percent between 1982 and 1992,
with some states like Florida and Nevada growing by more than 25 percent (Table
11). All these people require living space, clean water to drink, farms to
supply their food and timber to build their houses. Because Americans consume so
much more energy, food and raw materials than the average global citizen, their
impact on natural ecosystems is immense. The result is that wild America has
been pushed to the wall.
Throughout the nation, ecosystem destruction is increasing. "Reclamation" of
wetlands for agriculture continues in the midwestern states. New congressional
initiatives would accelerate destruction of wetlands, which are essential
breeding habitat for waterfowl. Livestock grazing on damaged western lands
continues. Logging in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska is eliminating what
little old-growth forest remains, including ancient redwood ecosystems.
Residential development in California and other western states is destroying
grasslands, chaparral and vernal pools, home to fairy shrimp and other
endangered species. Along the coasts, America's continuing love affair with
living near the sea drives a building boom that is making hundreds of additional
species candidates for federal protection.
What will the future be like if these trends continue? Without dramatic changes
in our patterns of land and resource use, more ecosystems will become fragmented
and degraded or disappear along with the wildlife they support. The remaining
wild lands will be replaced by vast stretches of residential sprawl, factory
farms, and tree plantations. In southern California, most of the natural
ecosystems along the coast have already been converted to housing and developers
are hungrily eyeing Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, the largest remnant of
coastal green space. Because Florida is so developed, the Florida panther and
the state's subspecies of black bear have been pushed into areas so small that a
predominant cause of mortality is motor vehicle collisions. Both animals could
disappear if new roads like the proposed State Road 40 and widening of U.S. 19
are allowed to chop up remaining habitat. In the Southwest, all riparian
ecosystems are under extreme pressure. Some rivers, such as the lower Gila in
Arizona, have been largely pumped dry and the native riparian ecosystems have
been destroyed. As western states continue to grow, the demand for water will
increase, putting the Gila, Colorado and other rivers at still greater risk.
Overview of Findings
Our study emphasizes that extensive habitat destruction is reaching the point
where the nation faces the loss of hundreds of natural ecosystems, including
California's ancient redwood forests, longleaf pine forests in the Southeast,
beach dune habitats along the East Coast, and even subterranean communities of
blind fish and crustaceans in Tennessee caves. Used in this sense, the term
"ecosystem" means a characteristic community of interdependent plants, animals
and microorganisms associated with particular kinds of soil, temperature,
rainfall and disturbance patterns. Thus, the redwood ecosystem can be found in
patches throughout northern California wherever soil, weather and fire frequency
Of the hundreds of imperiled ecosystems, this report identifies the 21
most-endangered ecosystems based on four factors (See Table 4). Ecosystems rank
high on Defenders of Wildlife's risk scale if they have been greatly reduced
since Europeans settled North America, if they are now very small, if they have
many imperiled species, and/or if the continued threat to their existence is
high. For example, southern California coastal sage scrub ranks high - in the
top ten - because it has been much reduced by development, because it harbors
many endangered species and because bulldozers are steadily chewing up what
remains. Other most-endangered ecosystems on our list are the south Florida
landscape, longleaf pine forests and savannas (grassland with scattered trees),
tallgrass prairie, Hawaiian dry forests, old-growth forests of the Pacific
Northwest and midwestern wetlands. Note that although we identify these
most-endangered ecosystems as having the greatest risk of disappearing, and they
therefore deserve high priority for conservation, conservation organizations or
agencies might give equal or greater priority to ecosystems not identified here.
In order to set their priorities, conservation organizations need to consider
not only risk of disappearance but also ecological importance, political and
economic opportunities for conservation and other factors.
In acres lost to other land uses since European settlement, the most reduced
ecosystems are prairies and other grasslands, savannas (for example, oak
savannas in the Midwest) and some forests and wetlands. Table 1 of our report
lists 27 ecosystem types that have lost more than 98 percent of their original
extent, including spruce-fir forest in the southern Appalachians, pine rockland
habitat in south Florida, wet and mesic coastal prairies in Louisiana, sedge
meadows in Wisconsin, and Palouse prairie in the Pacific Northwest.
In many ecosystems, what little remains has been largely degraded. Poorly
managed grazing on western public lands has resulted in loss of native grasses
and other plants and has contributed to the imperilment of at least 340 species
that are listed as endangered or threatened or are candidates for listing.2
Suppression of natural fires has caused gradual deterioration of fire-dependent
terrestrial and wetland communities such as prairies, barrens, southern
canebrakes and longleaf pine and ponderosa pine forests. Fire suppression in
longleaf pine forests causes invasion by hardwood trees and a major change in
the species composition of the forest.
Aquatic ecosystems have been severely degraded by dams, channelization and
pollution. Between 90 and 98 percent of the nation's streams are in bad enough
shape to be ineligible for federal designation as wild and scenic rivers, and
more than 80 percent of the nation's fish communities are considered degraded
because of decline or loss of native species and introduction of exotics. Of
Arizona's 30 existing native freshwater fishes, all but one are either
threatened, endangered or a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species
Act. The Mobile River Basin in Alabama was once home to more than 30 mussels and
130 snails found nowhere else in the world. Today more than half the mussels and
nearly a quarter of the snails are extinct.
Besides identifying which ecosystems are most endangered, Defenders determined
which states are experiencing the greatest threats to their ecosystems and
associated wildlife. States were ranked according to how many endangered
ecosystems they contain, how many rare species they have and how much
development is occurring. The ten states with the greatest overall risk of
ecosystem loss are Florida, followed by California and Hawaii (tied), Georgia,
North Carolina and Texas (tied), South Carolina and Virginia (tied), and finally
Alabama and Tennessee (tied) (See maps; Table 5).
Most of these states are experiencing rapid growth. In Florida, for example, the
amount of developed land increased 35 percent in the decade from 1982 to 1992.
If this rate of increase were to continue for the next 70 years, all developable
land in the state, including agricultural land, would be covered by houses and
concrete. While this is not likely to happen, this statistic illustrates the
frantic, unsustainable pace of Florida's current growth. Our Development Threat
Index shows that development pressures are greatest in the Southeast and
Southwest and parts of the East Coast (See Map 6). States with the highest
development scores are Florida and New Jersey (tied), Delaware and Maryland
(tied), Massachusetts and Rhode Island (tied), and California, Connecticut,
Georgia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Virginia (tied).
Our study shows that all 50 states have serious problems, even those ranking
relatively low in overall risk. Iowa, for example, falls in the bottom third of
states based on overall risk to ecosystems, largely because it has low rates of
population and development growth and relatively few large urban centers. Yet
agriculture has gobbled up 95 percent of Iowa's original 40 million acres of
forests, prairies and wetlands, and much of what remains is degraded. Seventy
native Iowa plant and animal species have vanished from the state, including
wild bison and black bear, wolf, cougar, elk, trumpeter swan, greater prairie
chicken, sandhill crane, long-billed curlew and burrowing owl. Iowa lists more
than 200 plants and animals as endangered or threatened.
Alaska, which falls at the bottom of Defenders' state rankings, nonetheless
contains many ecosystems under duress, including the belt of ancient temperate
rainforest stretching from the Kodiak Archipelago southeast along the Gulf of
Alaska to the Alaska panhandle. This rainforest is one of the last refuges for
many vulnerable species, among them the brown bear, Alexander Archipelago wolf,
Queen Charlotte goshawk and marbled murrelet. Also at risk is the Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain, where some members of Congress want to
allow oil drilling. The plain is the calving ground of one of the continent's
largest caribou herds.
Ironically, many states are steadily losing the very ecosystems that make them
attractive places to live and to visit. Florida, Defenders' top state in terms
of risk to ecosystems, draws new residents and an immense number of tourists
specifically because of the natural beauty of the coral reefs, the Everglades
marshes and wildlife and the state's other natural ecosystems. Yet the impact of
these people is enormous. More than half of Florida's wetlands have been lost to
drainage and development, including more than 65 percent of the
3,900-square-mile Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades system. Agriculture and
development have interrupted vital water flow across the Everglades and loaded
the water with phosphorus and nitrogen, stimulating the growth of dense stands
of cattails that choke out sawgrass and other water bird habitat. The
Everglades' wading-bird flocks, once estimated at more than 2.5 million birds,
have declined by 90 percent since the last century. This unacceptable condition
is recognized in a new report by the Commission on a Sustainable South Florida
appointed by Governor J. Lawton Chiles that recommends redirecting growth away
from the Everglades and other ecologically valuable places because tourism,
drinking water and the fishing industry all depend on a healthy natural
Why Care About Ecosystems?
As Governor Chiles's commission concluded, there are economic reasons to save
ecosystems. In Florida and elsewhere, people pay handsomely to live and play in
natural surroundings. They want to see natural forests with a full complement of
birds, flowers, and other wild things, not species-poor plantations of
genetically identical pine trees. In Hawaii, they want to see colorful native
birds and flowers, not fields of grass and cattle.
Moreover, natural ecosystems provide people with what are known as ecosystem
services, including building of fertile soil, purifying both the water and air,
and providing flood control. Loss of these services has real although often
hidden costs. For example, natural forests on mountain slopes can absorb twice
as much water as do plantation forests, slowing runoff and erosion and
preventing downstream flooding. Wetlands, estuaries and other aquatic systems
provide free sewage treatment. The New York Bight, a 2,000-square-mile embayment
at the mouth of the Hudson River, biologically treats the waste produced by 20
million people in the New York metropolitan area. If this biological filter is
damaged by excessive pollution, as seems to be occurring, the cost of replacing
these services with mechanical and chemical treatment facilities will run into
billions of dollars.
Healthy ecosystems also are essential for species to survive. As ecosystems
unravel, the species they sustain become candidates for the endangered list.
Most of the 956 U.S. threatened and endangered plant and animal species and the
3,902 candidates for listing are in trouble because of habitat loss. Loss of
perhaps 99 percent of Atlantic white cedar swamps has caused endangerment of the
green Hessel's hairstreak butterfly, a species whose larvae can feed only on the
cedar leaves. The imperiled buck moth of the northeastern states is dwindling
along with the vanishing pine barrens. If habitat destruction continues, we can
expect the number of threatened and endangered species to skyrocket. By waiting
until ecosystems are so deteriorated that their component species are in danger
of extinction, society incurs huge social and economic costs. This leads to
conflict between those people eager to save our living heritage and developers
and other exploitive interests.
What Must Be Done?
The challenge is to make our national endeavors less invasive, destructive and
wasteful, so that there is room for both humans and nature. Curbing excessive
human population growth and its consumption of resources should be a top
priority, but even if we are not fully successful much can be done today to
reduce the impacts of economic development on natural ecosystems and thereby
improve the quality of life for us and our descendants. We can conserve, recycle
and reuse natural resources such as wood products. We can restructure government
subsidies to discourage methods of ranching, farming and logging that are
environmentally destructive and promote those that are beneficial. We can pass
zoning ordinances to slow sprawl and promote communities where neighbors live
closer together. We can direct further development to lands that already have
been ecologically degraded and away from the last unspoiled natural landscapes
and we can restore those already degraded.
Making such fundamental changes will require help from government on all levels
as well as from industry, developers, scientific institutions, philanthropic
foundations, conservation organizations and individual citizens. Because most
land-use decisions are made by local government, local efforts to protect
natural lands can have tremendous cumulative impact. State and federal
initiatives can focus on large-scale patterns of land and resource use, economic
incentives and coordinated scientific programs.
It is imperative that the public and policymakers begin to take action.
Defenders makes the following recommendations for conserving our nation's
Make ecosystem conservation a national goal. All sectors of society must make
ecosystem conservation a high priority. We must provide better education about
the importance of ecosystems, provide more resources for their conservation, and
provide adequate protective legislation. Natural ecosystem protection should be
given first priority on the nation's public lands.
Maintain and strengthen existing environmental laws. We must defeat current
efforts in Congress to rollback existing environmental laws that promote
ecosystem conservation, among them the National Forest Management Act, Clean Air
Act, Clean Water Act, Tongass Timber Reform Act and Endangered Species Act.
Congress should also look for opportunities to strengthen the ecosystem
protection provisions of the National Forest Management Act, the enabling
legislation of the National Wildlife Refuge System and other appropriate
Reform policies that harm ecosystems. We should eliminate or reform government
laws and subsidies that support harmful resource use, including those permitting
hardrock mining and petroleum drilling in ecologically sensitive areas,
old-growth timber sales, below-market fees for grazing on ecologically degraded
or sensitive federal lands, and subsidies for agricultural commodities like corn
and soybeans that encourage conversion of wetlands and hedgerows to crop
production. As a supplement to traditional regulatory approaches, we should use
economic incentives and other creative techniques to encourage landowners to
manage their lands in ways that sustain natural ecosystems.
Improve scientific knowledge about ecosystems. We must improve the knowledge
base for making informed management decisions. A key need is a robust national
scientific agency, such as the National Biological Service, that has the
financial and technical capability to spearhead a national effort to map
ecosystems, identify ecosystems at risk, organize ecological research and
provide the scientific tools for proper conservation and management.
Develop appropriate management plans for whole ecosystems using "ecosystem
management." Planning and management should take place on large geographic
scales that consider the needs of entire ecosystems, not just pieces. All public
and private land managers with jurisdiction over an ecosystem should cooperate
and base their joint plans on the best available conservation science, including
consideration of disturbance regimes* and minimum viable population sizes** for
key species. Because ecosystems are so complex and in many cases exceed our
ability to understand them completely, managers should use "adaptive
management," meaning that managed ecosystems should be continuously monitored so
that timely action can be taken to correct for faulty management or changing
Overview of Report Structure
Our report begins in Section 1 with a status review of the nation's ecosystems,
identifying which ones are substantially reduced in area, rare, contain the most
endangered species, and/or face the greatest threats from humans. A survey of
threats is placed in Appendix A. We also present a list of the nation's 21
most-endangered ecosystems, case studies for which are in Appendix B. In Section
2 we present our assessment of how high the risk to ecosystems is in each state,
and in Section 3 we present five state case studies - Florida, California,
Hawaii, New York and Iowa. We chose states that represent different regions of
the country, and we took a historical approach to illustrate how past land-use
patterns have affected composition and distribution of ecosystems. Finally, we
make recommendations for acquiring better information on the status of
ecosystems and for protecting and restoring them.
* A disturbance regime is the specific type, size and frequency of disturbance
that occurs in an ecosystem. In longleaf pine forests the historical disturbance
regime was characterized by frequent low intensity fires over large areas.
** A minimum viable population size (MVP) is the minimum number of individuals
necessary to ensure that a population survives over some specific period of
time, given known causes of mortality, genetic characteristics, demographic
makeup and other factors. MVPs generally considered necessary for long-term
survival of large mammals are in the range of 500 to 1,000 individuals.
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