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Intelligent Tinkering: the Endangered Species Act and Resilience

Melinda Harm Benson, University of New Mexico


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The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is one of the most powerful and controversial environmental laws in the United States. As a result of its uncompromising position against biodiversity loss, the ESA has become the primary driver of many ecological restoration efforts in the United States. This article explains why the ESA has become the impetus for so many of these efforts and assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the ESA as a primary driver from a resilience-based perspective. It argues that in order to accommodate resilience theory, several changes to ESA implementation and enforcement should be made. First and foremost, there is a need to shift management strategies from a species-centered to a systems-based approach. Chief among the shifts required will be a more integrated approach to governance that includes a willingness to reassess demands placed on ecological systems by our social systems. Building resilience will also require more proactive management efforts that support the functioning of system processes before they are endangered and on the brink of regime change. Finally, resilience thinking requires a reorientation of management away from goals associated with achieving preservation, restoration, and optimization and toward goals associated with fostering complexity and adaptive capacity.

Key words

Endangered Species Act; governance; resilience; social-ecological systems

Copyright © 2012 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087