When I was a kid the reading that most absorbed me was the “Drama in Real Life” article that appeared every month in Reader’s Digest. Campers attacked by grizzly bears, cars plunging off bridges, grotesque tractor accidents–every month a new heart-pounding adventure, a few minutes’ worth of you-are-there adrenaline jolts.

I recently found a new source of journalistic thrills, though these stories don’t always have the happy endings the Reader’s Digest ones did. The publication I pick up is the dull-sounding Endangered Species Technical Bulletin, which is published every few months by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It tells of the new plants and animals that have been proposed for the federal Endangered Species List.

It’s no stretch to claim that these tales can be as thrilling as the human adventures in Reader’s Digest, because some of the organisms described have a breathtakingly slight grasp on life. There are stories about plants such as the wahane, a Hawaiian palm tree represented in the wild by only two specimens. There are animals such as the Devil’s Hole pupfish, which lives only in a single table-size pool of water in Death Valley. The American burying beetle, once widespread from the Atlantic coast to the Great Plains, is today found in only two locations.

The bulletin’s dramas are as much political as biological. It doesn’t detail the plight of endangered species without discussing efforts to protect them–efforts that have become controversial. This year the federal Endangered Species Act is up for reauthorization in Congress, and the political winds are blowing strong from a number of quarters. As the storm gathers, the bulletin is a useful little guide to the effects the act has had and what may happen to it.

When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, few doubted that its intent was noble. Human activities were imperiling the continued existence of many animal and plant species, and a law to protect them seemed a good idea. But by 1978 the law’s protection of an obscure fish, the snail darter, was holding up completion of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Tellico Dam. The dam was built, and the fish survived, but the controversy’s legacy can be seen in ongoing disputes in various parts of the country. In the Pacific Northwest the attempt to protect the northern spotted owl has led to violence in the woods. In Arizona a bitter battle continues because an astronomical observatory threatens the only habitat of a squirrel subspecies. Examples could be listed for every region of the country.

Many opponents of the law would like to see it weakened, would like to see it required to take into account the economic consequences of protecting species (which, according to a Supreme Court ruling, the original act expressly does not do). Environmentalists would like to see the act made stronger. Many would like to see it expanded to include, in some as yet undefined way, entire ecosystems, not just the individual species that live there.

The Endangered Species Technical Bulletin doesn’t takes sides in this battle. As an organ of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with administering the act, it sticks with the biological facts. But it isn’t difficult to read between the lines and see what pressures the agency is facing.

I begin my reading on the back page, which always includes a “box score” that tells how many species are listed as endangered or threatened (think of “endangered” as the equivalent of a description of a patient’s condition as “critical,” and “threatened” as the equivalent of “serious”). By the beginning of 1993 a total of 287 animals and 298 plants in the United States were listed as endangered. Another 101 animals and 72 plant species were listed as threatened.

Another 400 or so species were classified as “category 1,” which means the Fish and Wildlife Service has reason to think they’re endangered but hasn’t gotten around to putting them on the list. Precedent shows that most of them probably will be listed. Several thousand more are being considered for classification, kept from any list mainly because the Fish and Wildlife Service’s staff is limited. Like sick people who haven’t yet been to the doctor, these species may well be declining as they wait.

In 1973 probably only a handful of biologists recognized how many species the law might cover. The animals that got the law passed were the big, showy species even a politician could love–the bald eagle, the American alligator, the gray whale. Conservation biologists call such creatures “charismatic megafauna.” Most of the money spent for endangered-species protection still goes to those animals, as shown in a recent bulletin article.

Federal and state agencies spent $176.8 million on listed animals and plants in fiscal year 1991. The money went to acquiring land for preservation, to research and monitoring, to controlling species competing with endangered ones. The list of where the money went is as top-heavy as the statistics on national income redistribution during the 1980s. Seven species accounted for over half of the money. The bald eagle got $24.6 million, the northern spotted owl $12.8 million, the grizzly bear $3.8 million. Meanwhile, $100 was spent for the conservation of the fragrant prickly apple cactus, and no money at all was spent on at least 70 other unglamorous species.

Charismatic megafauna may receive funding and public attention, but they still make up only a small percentage of those listed. To understand how the list has swelled, take a look at the candidate species proposed for listing in a recent issue of the bulletin. There’s Braunton’s milkvetch, a pea endemic to limestone outcrops in the mountains around Los Angeles, a habitat it shares with four other plants that are also on the proposed list (the family name for the four, ironically, is “live forever”). There are three ferns known to exist only at a handful of sites in Puerto Rico and two small plants limited to a small part of southern Utah. The only animal proposed is the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly, which has the distinction of being the first fly proposed for protection under the act and is limited to less than 700 acres of sandy habitat on the outskirts of Los Angeles. (After species have been formally proposed for listing, a year-long public-comment period follows. If no evidence–or political arm-twisting–emerges to make the Fish and Wildlife Service doubt that a species is in danger, it’s officially listed as endangered or threatened.)

You’ve probably never heard of these animals or plants and wouldn’t miss them if they were gone. Most of the species protected under the act are just as obscure. They’re specialists that evolved to fit the environment of ecologically narrow niches. Wetlands in Nevada, boggy swales in northwest Indiana, isolated mountain ranges that rise from the deserts of the southwest–all are, in effect, islands of very specialized habitat that require different adaptations than surrounding areas. Because these species live in relatively confined areas, they’re more susceptible to being wiped out by changes in their habitat than are generalists, which can adapt to a wide range of conditions. Moreover, many of these species were never common, because the environmental conditions with which they evolved have always been restricted to a small area.

Yet the bulletin also shows that many species are confined to man-made islands. Take, for example, the southwestern subspecies of the willow flycatcher, which was proposed for listing this August. It’s a drab, greenish bird found in woodlands and thickets along rivers in the southwest. At least, it used to be. Grazing, water diversion, and dam building have made its habitat scarce. Biologists estimate that less than a thousand birds (considered a very low number for a small songbird) hang on in isolated pockets of California, Arizona, and New Mexico.

The trouble with the willow flycatcher–and the reason a controversy is likely to ensue if it’s listed as endangered–is that there are three other subspecies of the willow flycatcher. They nest farther to the north and are all relatively common. And they’re indistinguishable from the southwestern subspecies, except to a professional ornithologist versed in such arcana as the length of wing feathers. Not only that, but willow flycatchers are extremely difficult to distinguish from several other species of flycatcher.

This is the sort of organism that provokes critics of the Endangered Species Act to respond: “So what if it goes extinct? It’s a drab bird at the edge of its range that can’t be recognized by the ordinary citizen. And it lives on land that’s among the most valuable in the arid southwest–the verdant banks of the few remaining rivers that have not been dammed.” Land, in other words, that may be too valuable to be set aside just for the pleasure of a few bird-watchers.

Hard-core environmentalists, with equal vehemence, point to the willow flycatcher as proof that the Endangered Species Act is inadequate. They consider the act a sort of emergency room that accepts only patients that are already critically ill. The act, they say, makes no provision for preventive medicine, provides no incentive for keeping species off the list. They would like to see the act altered to protect entire ecosystems–southwestern rivers, in this case, which have been shown to support great densities of wildlife.

Ironically, both sides agree that the flycatcher itself, like the spotted owl in the northwest, may not be the real issue, that the real issue is land management: How is the land to be used? And who gets to decide?

Once the Endangered Species Act comes into play, it’s often the Fish and Wildlife Service that decides. The act offers several different sorts of protection to listed animals and plants. It generally bans hunting or collecting, except in rare instances. It requires that any projects funded, authorized, or carried out by federal agencies not adversely affect any listed species–though enforcement of this provision is not necessarily stringent. And it requires the protection of “critical habitat” vital to the creature’s survival.

It was the critical-habitat provision that nearly stopped the Tellico Dam in the 1970s. Some federal biologists say the provision comes near to the ecosystem protection championed by environmentalists, since there’s no way to save a wild animal without protecting its habitat. Save the habitat of one species, and you help out all the other animals and plants that live there too.

Habitat acquisition and other protection programs have indeed been successful in bringing some species back from the brink. The bulletin reveals that 10 percent of endangered and threatened species are currently considered to be increasing. Another 31 percent have stable populations. But 38 percent are declining, and 2 percent of the organisms on the list are believed to be extinct (the status of the rest is unknown).

People have presumably been classifying animals since human history began. But in the Western world the concept of the species dates from the 17th century and the work of Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist who devised the biological naming system still in use today.

Linnaeus believed that species were discrete, immutable units. Not until Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 did the idea that species evolve and change gain any real scientific credence. Species, wrote Darwin, descend from subspecies, which in turn derive from races or varieties, which in turn are the result of slight variations among individuals. Species fall along a continuum and are neither unchanging nor absolutely definable. The very concept of a species is only a tool. In many cases biologists disagree as to what precisely constitutes a species or subspecies. Field guides are constantly being revised as species that were formerly considered separate are lumped together, and vice versa.

Biologists today accept Darwin’s idea, and the Endangered Species Act reflects it. The act protects not only species, but also subspecies–like the southwestern willow flycatcher–and discrete populations. It’s up to the biologists to decide which populations are significant enough to warrant protection–in effect, which ones may play a role in further evolution.

It’s very difficult to decide that a given population may be expendable. There are no rules governing which adaptations of which subspecies may prove valuable in the future. And few biologists are presumptuous enough to declare that the unique genetic makeup of some subspecies is unimportant, though politicians are quick to do so. The annals of agriculture are rife with examples of obscure wild crop plants whose genetic material was implanted in domestic varieties to make them stronger or more resistant to disease. Genes from a variety of land mammals have been used to breed stronger stocks of fish. As we enter the age of genetic engineering, there’s simply no way to predict whether given genes–including those of drab, obscure birds–will be important.

As biologists’ knowledge grows, so will our understanding of what needs to be protected. Many wildlife biologists today speak of “indicator species” whose health reflects that of their environment. Because the northern spotted owl, for example, appears to need tracts of relatively undisturbed forest, its presence or absence tells us a great deal about the forest’s health. Preserving the owl preserves the forest.

Some environmentalists sneer at pragmatic arguments for conservation, arguing that animals and plants have an inherent right to survive and continue evolving. Their view has merit. Perhaps it’s a good ground rule that we shouldn’t destroy anything we can’t rebuild: Jurassic Park notwithstanding, we’re still a long way from being able to resurrect either Tyrannosaurus rex or the passenger pigeon. Unfortunately, arguments based purely on ethics seldom cut much ice with the U.S. Congress. Pointing out the potential economic value of a threatened species or subspecies may be more effective.

Biology, like politics, is an inexact science, one that still proceeds by intuition, emotion, hunches. What’s remarkable about the Endangered Species Act is that, by granting the Fish and Wildlife Service the flexibility and power to protect even small subspecies populations, it reflects the uncertainties of field biology better than anyone could have planned. It was a great achievement for a seemingly black-and-white piece of legislation.

Polls almost invariably show that the public supports more protection of the environment, including endangered species, but they also often reveal a great reluctance to pay for that protection. When Congress gets around to reauthorizing, and perhaps rewriting, the act, the temptation to water it down will be great, especially during a national economic downturn. The question of how much we’re willing to pay to ensure a richer future will be posed in sharp relief. Whichever way the debate goes, it’s going to be a drama in real life.

Endangered Species Technical Bulletin, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C. 20240.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Will Northerner.