Endangered Species Act failures offer “cautionary tale”

by Shannon Kelleher

The strongest US conservation law lacks the resources to help most imperiled species fully recover, according to a new study. While thousands of species have been listed by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since it was passed in 1973, only 54 have recovered to the point where they no longer require protection.

The study suggests that the failures of this law, 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.

“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.