The Danger in “Endangered”

I’m still poring over the “Language of Conservation Memo 2013,” and I’ve found another so-called bad word to avoid: “endangered species.”

Again, there’s no explanation of this in the memo. The term simply appears on a list. Why is “endangered species” a term that conscientious conservation communicators should eschew?

Back when “endangered species” was coined, I think the simplicity of it must have held some allure. An endangered species is simply an animal in danger — picture a polar bear cub on a shrinking piece of ice. The term appealed to the widespread human desire to help the helpless.

Nowadays, of course, it’s a technical term. An “endangered species” is not simply a kind of animal that is in danger, it’s a species or subspecies on the federal list of threatened and endangered species. To merit the term “endangered,” a species must be “listed.” The feds do that. It’s squarely in the realm of bureaucracy, and if there’s anything more scary/boring to the average American than science, it’s bureaucracy.

To replace these bad words, the memo again suggests using “fish and wildlife,” as it did for “biodiversity.” As a conservation communicator, I sighed at this substitution, too. “Fish and wildlife” is simply not an adequate synonym for “endangered species.” But I see that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that maintains the list, refers to endangered species on its program’s home page as “imperiled animals and plants.”

I guess they got the memo.

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