Queuing Toward Extinction? Why We Must Address the Shortcomings of the Endangered Species Act

Bald eagle — a bird of prey native to North America. Delisted in 2007.

In August 2019, the Trump Administration announced sweeping changes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), slashing regulation that helps protect wildlife and plants from extinction.

The modifications make it harder to add species to the list and easier to remove those currently listed. They allow regulators to bypass long-term climate change goals and reduce existing protections for species that are deemed ‘endangered’, but not ‘critically’ so. The revisions open the door for continued oil and gas exploration by limiting the area of protected land. Although the Act may have been in need of some modernization, the current administration’s redraft is a step back, a short-sighted failure by a government focused on short-term economic growth versus long-term sustainability.

The announcement drew immediate legal action. Bob Dreher, vice president at Defenders of Wildlife, a non-profit which is part of a group of environmental organizations that just issued a lawsuit, said: “This will be a battle royal. You’re going to see a strong, strong movement opposing cuts to the ESA. I don’t want to sound overly confident or cocky that we’re going to defeat this. It’s going to be the fight of my conservation career.”

Republicans are an impatient bunch. They have argued that species recovery takes too long. Only 39 of the 1900 listed species, which include animals like the cheetah, alligator, blue whale, polar bear, and the Imperial pheasant have been fully recovered. But it is estimated that since the Act passed in 1973, extinction has been prevented for 291 species. That’s a rate of roughly 15% over 46 years. Yes, conservation efforts do take a long time, but researchers admit that ESA recovery evaluations are in need of an overhaul.

Abel Valdivia, a marine ecologist at the Center for Biological Diversity in California, has been studying the recovery of ESA-listed marine mammals and sea turtles. Recovery plans serve as action guidelines for conservationists, but also regulators. Their ultimate goal is to downgrade species from “endangered” or “threatened” status.

A total of 163 threatened marine species are currently listed in the ESA. From these, Valdivia and his team chose 23 representative marine mammal and eight sea turtle species. They found that 78% of marine mammal populations and 75% of sea turtle populations increased after being listed under the Act. Whilst that’s good news, they also noted that it took on average 20 years for species to recover.

But are 20 years “too long”? Perhaps we should adjust our expectations. Noah Greenwald, the Endangered Species Program Director for the Center for Biological Diversity, goes further and argues that delisting a species shouldn’t even be a measure for success. Because the time it takes to delist a species doesn’t match the recovery plans.

Kierán Suckling has been investigating this discrepancy. The director at the Center for Biological Diversity noted that bird species recovered at the rates stipulated by their recovery plans — an average of 63 years. Yet, birds had only been listed 40 years ago. Yes, faster recovery rates are desirable, but expected time frames should align with those detailed in recovery plans. When it comes to conservation, patience is key.

Sea otter — native to the coasts of the North Pacific Ocean. Placed on the ESA in 1977. Recovery plan approved in 2003.

It’s a real problem then that almost a fourth of listed species don’t have recovery plans. Jacob Malcolm who heads the Center for Conservation Innovation at the Defenders of Wildlife found that not only did some species lack coordinated efforts, half of recovery plans took more than five years to finalize. Another 50% were older than 20 years. Outdated recovery plans pose a challenge for implementation because new knowledge is aggregated and shared faster than before.

But the lack of recovery planning may not make species more prone to removal from the ESA under new government changes, Malcolm suggests. “Not having a recovery plan […] won’t make species more likely to be removed from the list. It may bump them up the list in terms of getting some recovery criteria set, which would be a good thing,” he says.

Yet, under loosened regulation, “species with or without recovery plans may be more likely to be prematurely delisted.” He adds that part of the problem lies in the phrase “foreseeable future”. “[This] might allow delisting under an argument that there’s too much uncertainty about timing of extinction or threats,” Malcolm comments. “That’s the exact opposite of what is needed to ensure the long-term protection of species.”

To integrate rehabilitation efforts, agencies require more funding. But that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. The Trump administration recently cut U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service budgets by 8.6%.

“The biggest hurdle for recovery planning and plan implementation is limited funding, far-and-away. Previous analysis has estimated recovery funding has been less than 25% of what is needed. When you spread that out over time and consider the other parts of implementing the ESA (e.g., section 7 consultations), we estimate funding just for the US Fish and Wildlife Service needs to double,” Malcom adds.

His frustrations are shared by Brett Hartl, the director of government affairs at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Endangered Species Act is the world’s foremost law for saving species, but Trump wants to gut funding to recover imperiled wildlife from the brink of extinction,” he said in a press release. “Trump squanders tens of millions in taxpayer dollars flying down to Mar-a-Lago to play golf every weekend yet spending a similar amount to protect and recover our most endangered species is simply too much.”

Not all is lost. Modern approaches to recovery planning may offer promise. For example, genetic adaption can provide clues as to how quickly species can adapt to changing environments. Earlier this year, scientists proposed that genomic data on species should be included when planning for recovery.

By monitoring changes in gene expression, the effects of environmental disruptions to the ecosystem can be predicted. It’s an approach that has led researchers to conclude that climate change-induced bleaching of reef coral has a lasting effect. Even when environmental conditions improved, some coral genes remained changed.

More evidence is needed, but new technologies and research innovations could help speed up the planning process, which in turn may lower costs.

Recovery rate is not the only shortcoming that slows down rescue efforts for endangered species. Emily Puckett, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri, revealed that it took an average 12 years to list a species in the ESA. If species aren’t listed in a timely manner, their rescue could take even longer.

“Some species moved through the process in six months but some species, including many flowering plants, took 38 years to be listed — almost the entire history of the ESA,” she told Futurity.

Based on the analysis of 1338 species going through the ESA listing process, Puckett found that “taxa, initiator (one of the two federally services or a 3rd party entity), and presence of a lawsuit all affected listing process time.”

“Specifically, reptiles, fishes, and birds have the fastest listing times, where snails and plants had the longest times,” she tells me in an email. “Species, where lawsuits had been filed, took longer to process than species without. We showed that this was due to an already extended process time […] for those species prior to initiation of the lawsuit.”

Joshua tree — a native to the Southwestern US. Threatened by climate change. Not listed.

While Trump administration changes to the ESA may not directly affect listing speed, Puckett admits that “we will not know if there are indirect effects until years after implementation.”

Collecting economic information is a prime concern. “Although the rule states it will not be used for decision making, the information could be leveraged in legislative or judicial challenges to listing decisions,” she continues.

Though lawsuits have successfully resolved cases of species being stuck as “warranted but precluded” — a status that keeps a species on a waitlist indefinitely — Pucket warns that recent changes may affect legislative procedure. “[O]ne could imagine a new type of lawsuit that utilized or argued against government compiled estimates of economic impacts, of which the effects on process time are difficult to imagine without data on implementation.”

But once a species gets listed under the ESA, it may be too late for rescue efforts. For Paul Henson, a research scientist at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, timing is critical. “[T]he most opportune time for species conservation to occur is that moment when a species is seriously being considered for a listing, but well before a final listing decision has been made. Once a listing decision is imminent, people start paying attention, information is collected, and stakeholders are jolted into action,” he writes.

In other words, the moment a species starts to attract attention (i.e. becomes critically endangered), opposing parties will swoop in to weaken the listing process to protect their assets or capital interests. Henson advocates for collaboration with landowners and stakeholders early on so they can work together to establish conservation action. Perhaps then certain species won’t need to be listed. Given recent funding cuts, such joint efforts would make sense.

The ESA is an enormous undertaking. Yet for all its shortcomings, the Act has been victorious. Without it, wildlife such as the Canadian goose, the grey wolf or the peregrine falcon may long be extinct. It’s an effort that has resonated with the American public, nine in 10 of whom support the Act.

Perhaps President Richard Nixon put it best when he signed the Act in 1973: “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed. […] America will be more beautiful in the years ahead, thanks to the measure that I have the pleasure of signing into law today.”

Illustrations by Anne Freier.

Author of “Science of Breakup”. Preorder now: https://scienceofbreakup.com/buy.html MRes Biomedical Research & MSc Neuroscience Neuropsychology.

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