A key US conservation law lacks the resources to help most imperiled species fully recover, according to a study published October 12.
The study suggests that the failures of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which remains one of the strongest conservation measures in the world, stem from insufficient funding and a tendency to offer protection too late, when population sizes have already severely diminished.
While thousands of species have been listed by the ESA since it was passed in 1973, only 54 have recovered to the point where they no longer require protection.
“For decades, the agency that is primarily responsible for operationalizing the ESA, the Fish and Wildlife Service, has been starved for resources,” said Erich Eberhard, a researcher at Columbia University and an author of the study. “As a result, we are slow to give species the protections they deserve, typically waiting until they are extremely rare, with very small population sizes, and thus at extreme risk of extinction.”
“The Fish and Wildlife Service needs more resources to be able to process petitions more quickly and get species listed sooner,” he added.
The findings may offer lessons for the upcoming United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, which will convene in December with the intent to finalize a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. The framework would help conserve the estimated one million plant and animal species at risk for extinction worldwide due to human activities.
“Our paper is showing the ESA as a bit of a cautionary tale,” said Eberhard. “You can have really ambitious goals, you can have the tools for conservation, but you need to back it up.”
Not a front-of-mind issue
While the ESA calls for a two-year period between when a species is first considered for protections and when a decision is made about its status, the analysis found that the process frequently takes much longer. Wait times were about 3 years for species petitioned for listing between 2010 and 2020 – an improvement from wait times of more than 9 years between 2000 and 2009, when the Fish and Wildlife Service received more petitions.
Overall, the study identified a decline in funding for the ESA from 1985 to present, finding that funding per species has decreased by 50% during that period. Inadequate funding has persisted over the decades without a clear relationship to which political party is in power.
“The majority of Americans are in favor of protecting our imperiled species, but it’s not really a front-of-mind issue for most people, so it’s not the top issue for any administration,” said Eberhard. “It’s not an issue that drives national political debate, so it doesn’t really get the attention that it deserves.”
Due to its insufficient funding, the Fish and Wildlife Service must make difficult choices about which species to prioritize for protection.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service has never really had enough funding to meet its mandate,” said Christian Langpap, a conservation researcher from Oregon State University who was not involved in the study. “It has always been catching up. It has always been in this position of having to choose which species to prioritize. A lot of the decisions that the Fish and Wildlife Service has made over the years have been driven by responses to lawsuits from environmental nonprofits.”
But Langpap also observed that recovering species to the point where they can be removed from the Endangered Species List is not the ESA’s only goal. The law is also charged with preventing extinctions – a task he said it has achieved with considerable success. In a 2018 paper, Langpap and colleagues noted that only ten species have gone extinct while listed under the ESA.
“There’s quite a bit going on between the two extremes of ‘extinct’ and ‘recovered,’” he said. “Even if only a small percentage of the species improve enough to be removed from the list, there’s definitely a lot of evidence that spending by government agencies under the ESA has positive impacts on species recovery.”
(Photo from USGS.)