De-Extinction and the Endangered Species Act

Wednesday, March 20, 2013, by Dylan Novak
In 1996, animal cloning became a prominent topic throughout the world when Dolly the sheep was successfully cloned. While Dolly was not the first cloned animals, she was the first animal cloned from an adult cell, not an embryo. Since Dolly, many more animals have been successfully cloned from adult cells and some of the potential uses of cloning are starting to be realized. One of the perhaps important uses of cloning will be repopulating endangered species and bringing back extinct species.
The recent trend in cloning has been to bring back species from extinction. Earlier this month, South Korea and Russian scientist announced plans to use frozen woolly mammoth corpses to clone the long extinct species. Also, Australian scientists have begun work on cloning a frog that went extinct in the 1980s. This work is not only taking place overseas; American scientists met just this week in Washington, D.C., to develop a plan to clone and reintroduce the passenger pigeon to the United States. This unfortunate pigeon was an extremely abundant species when the American colonies were first founded. After being hunted for their meat and feathers in the 18th and 19th century, the pigeon became extinct in 1914. By using genetic material from passenger pigeons in museums, the scientists hope to remedy the damage done by our ancestors.

You’re re-introducing the passenger pigeon to the same geographic region, but not the same environment

The idea of bringing back species, like the passenger pigeon, that mankind has recklessly caused the extinction of is an exciting prospect; however, this possibility raises the question of how will a de-extinct species fit into our society and legal framework? There is currently no legislation that specifically addresses de-extinction and the difficulties it could present. The closest thing would be the Endangered Species Act, which is designed to prevent extinction. The Endangered Species Act gives the Fish and Wildlife Services Agency the ability to list species that are dwindling in numbers as threatened or endangered. But do species that no longer exist qualify as a species that can be endangered?
The Endangered Species Act was designed to stop the destruction of a species habitat and prevent actions that would threaten their population. The problem with the passenger pigeon and other extinct species is that their “habitat” has not existed for a hundred years or more. The forests that the pigeons once relied on to breed no longer exist. In 1882, Ornithologist J.M. Wheaton noted that the flocks of passenger pigeons would decimate a forest when they passed through. One scientist noted that these same effects could be seen with reintroduction, but the pigeons’ target would be the farms that now exist in their former habitat.
With the science of cloning advancing and the possibility of de-extinction becoming a reality, a governing body must be assigned the responsibility of regulating the reintroduction of organisms. Each of these once extinct species could present problems similar to the Asian Carp in the Great Lakes. De-extinction presents amazing possibilities, but the process must be undertaken with care.