UF survey finds support for Endangered Species Act
Published: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 23, 2013 at 10:17 p.m.
Floridians may not rank the state's endangered species among their top 10 concerns, but they still feel strongly about protecting the vulnerable critters of the Sunshine State, according to a recent survey from the University of Florida.
55 percent support avoiding activities harmful to endangered species
66 percent support strengthening Endangered Species Act
78 percent agree with restricting development to protect endangered species
85 percent would pay attention to news stories about endangered species
The Center for Public Issues Education at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences surveyed 499 residents last month to sound out their attitudes in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the federal Endangered Species Act.
The survey found overwhelming support for the act and for strengthening it, even though protecting endangered animals was far less important than the economy, health care and food safety. It did, however, come just behind taxes, public education and the state budget.
"The results in this survey are probably stronger support for endangered species protection than I would have expected," said Frank Jackalone, Sierra Club Florida's staff director. "It confirms that Floridians overall live in the Sunshine State because they appreciate the environment, they appreciate the natural beauty and the wildlife and they get it. They get that environment is an important reason for living here."
The survey shows they also support restrictions on behavior, fining violators and prohibiting development that encroaches into endangered species habitats.
"Floridians ... support the notion that species need to be protected, even though individuals may have to have their activities restricted or have fines imposed," PIE Center Director Tracy Irani said.
Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973 to "protect and recover imperiled species and ecosystems." Endangered species are those in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Threatened species are those that soon could become endangered.
As of January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed more than 2,000 species worldwide that were endangered or threatened, with 1,436 in the United States. More than 133 of those federally listed species are in Florida, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Sixty-six percent of the survey's respondents supported the Endangered Species Act or strengthening it.
Respondents considered themselves fairly knowledgeable about the state's imperiled species and what sorts of things contribute to their endangerment, Irani said. Those included habitat loss and degradation, chemical and agricultural pollutants, commercial and residential development.
Respondents said they were interested in learning more about conservation and overwhelmingly said they'd be likely to vote for political candidates who support conservation.
Yet, at the same time, they showed little interest in joining groups or actively working to protect the environment and endangered species. Only 23 percent said they would join an environmental group or participate in some sort of conservation effort.
Instead, they were more likely to avoid harmful activities such as buying invasive plants or driving fast through endangered species habitat. Fifty-five percent said they were very "likely" to avoid harmful activities such as buying invasive plants and pets.
"We find with a lot of environmental behaviors that it is human nature unless you are strongly motivated," Irani said. "People try to conserve, and the things that require less effort and easier to do — it's human nature to say we're willing to engage in those activities. You have to be motivated to take direct action."
That lack of engagement could be related to an overall sense that the public has little input or influence in shaping policy or making decisions, and that politicians had too much influence, the survey showed. Sixty percent of the respondents said citizens had too little influence on a national level, and 57 percent said citizens had too little influence on a state level.
"Sometimes folks feel their individual actions may not mean much in the bigger picture," Irani said. Respondents felt they didn't have a lot of influence and that taking deliberate action wasn't worth their time and effort, she said.
It is not for a lack of opportunity. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission regularly reaches out to the public for ideas on conservation of threatened and endangered species, said Diane Hirth, spokeswoman for the FWC. The FWC holds public meetings, takes public comments and offers other opportunities for input online on draft wildlife management plans, she said, including the plans approved in 2012 for the Florida black bear and gopher tortoise.
Fifty-five percent of respondents said the FWC had just the right level of influence.
When it came to protection, though, there was strong support. The majority — 68 percent of respondents — supported continued protection of manatees, and 88 percent supported slow-speed zones; meanwhile, 74 percent supported continued enforcement of lighting restrictions on beaches where sea turtles nest.
Respondents favored taking action against violators and measures to protect habitat: 51 percent said fines should be imposed on those who harm endangered species, and 50 percent said fines should be levied against people who harm habitat. Another 44 percent said the state should buy sensitive lands to protect endangered species, and 53 percent supported restricting commercial development.
Respondents in the PIE Center survey also were more likely to support protecting mammals and fish than birds and reptiles.
"The literature suggests mammals are more fuzzy and cuddly, and that's why they may be up there; fish are number two because of stories in the news about endangered or threatened fish populations," Irani said.
That might have to do with the emotional bonds people make with some animals and not others, such as snakes, she said. "We do show reptiles are also less likely to be ranked high in terms of protection," she said.
The survey also showed strong support for Everglades restoration, as well, with more than 60 percent saying that restoration should continue even if it means putting restrictions on commercial and residential development.
Monitoring the welfare of endangered species in the Everglades helps determine whether the steps undertaken by the state are working or not, said Dawn Shirreffs, senior Everglades policy adviser for the Everglades Foundation. And the public clearly understand the cost and benefit of that restoration.
"We can prevent continuing to do harm, if we make sacrifices on the front end rather than continue losing species," Shirreffs said. "There is a huge evolution in our thinking because we have learned from the mistakes of the past, from losing over half the Everglades ecosystem."