Most listed plants and animals are declining — report

By Phil Taylor | 01/12/2016 01:09 PM EST

A new analysis of the Endangered Species Act by a diverse group of scientists points to serious troubles in how federal agencies allocate scarce funds and work in partnerships with states and private landowners. “ESA is one of our country’s strongest environmental laws, but it has only partly fulfilled its conservation promise,” said Daniel Evans, who led the report while serving as a policy fellow at the Forest Service. “Climate change will continue to shuffle the mix of species in ecosystems, increasing both extinction risk and management uncertainty.”

More than half of the threatened and endangered species in the United States are in decline, according to a new report from a diverse team of scientists.

The wide-ranging report published this month in Issues in Ecology also recommends improvements, urging federal wildlife agencies to improve how they allocate recovery funds and better leverage partnerships with states and private landowners.

Some of its core findings will give wildlife advocates pause.


Out of 1,292 species that are protected under ESA, roughly one-third of them are considered "stable" and 8 percent were improving, with most of the rest in decline, according to the report, which cited biennial reports submitted between 1990 and 2010 to Congress by the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, the two agencies that administer ESA.

Three percent of the listed species were presumed extinct, but at least half of them were probably extinct at the time they were listed, the report noted.

Moreover, many listed species are now considered "conservation reliant," which means they will require "consistent interventions" to ensure adequate habitat; genetic diversity; and safety from predators, invasive species or parasites. These include the Kirtland’s warbler, whose young forested breeding grounds in Michigan must be maintained by humans now that fire no longer plays its historical role.

Recovery challenges will increase in the face of funding shortages and climate change, the report concludes.

"ESA is one of our country’s strongest environmental laws, but it has only partly fulfilled its conservation promise," said Daniel Evans, who led the report while serving as a policy fellow at the Forest Service. "Climate change will continue to shuffle the mix of species in ecosystems, increasing both extinction risk and management uncertainty."

The report was funded by the Forest Service, the Ecological Society of America and Resources for the Future. The 18 co-authors represented universities, conservation groups, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service.

The findings and recommendations are notable given the broad backgrounds of the authors, said Ya-Wei Li, senior director of endangered species conservation at Defenders of Wildlife and a co-author.

"It’s quite rare to see such a broad group of folks agree on ESA issues," he said.

A key finding was that recovery investments that have been made have been unevenly distributed.

Over the last 15 years, more than 80 percent of all government spending went to 5 percent of all listed species. Critics say those investments disproportionately targeted charismatic species at the expense of less iconic ones, namely plants.

Since passage of the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1966 — when there were 78 listed species — the number of federal protected species has grown more than twentyfold, the report notes. Thirty-two species have recovered sufficiently to be removed from that list.

"Recovery for most species officially protected by the ESA — i.e., listed species — has been harder to achieve than initially envisioned," the report says.

Threats rising

Human activities are largely to blame.

Since ESA’s passage 42 years ago, the U.S. human population has grown by more than half while gross domestic product has grown more than tenfold, the report notes.

Recovery plans indicate the greatest threats species face are habitat loss and degradation as more lands are farmed, mined and developed and as historical wildfire regimes are thrown out of whack, the report found.

Other top threats include competition with and predation from other species as well as pollution, particularly for fish and freshwater mollusks, and off-highway vehicle use that can trample animals and plants.

While climate change was listed as a threat in 26 recovery plans, Fish and Wildlife has identified it more frequently since 2010 and it "almost certainly threatens more species than recovery plans indicate," the report notes.

Recovery spending has increased notably from 1998 to 2012, rising from $547 million to nearly $1.4 billion when adjusted for inflation. Yet roughly 80 percent of the funding came from sources other than Fish and Wildlife, namely NMFS and the Department of Defense. FWS expenditures did double from $77 million to $156 million per year, the report found.

Still, much of the recovery spending did not go directly to on-the-ground habitat improvements but rather to agency staff, law enforcement, listings and consultations. Research indicates that recovery investments over the past 15 years were about one-third what’s needed to recover listed species, the report says.

Also, the majority of recovery spending has gone to 15 species of fish, the report notes.

While nearly $200 million has been spent annually on chinook salmon, the median annual investment for species managed solely by FWS was $2,686. For FWS, which primarily manages land-based species, investments ranged from less than $200 annually for the seven least-funded species to $2 million per year for bull trout, the report says.

"The degree to which funding is skewed appears to far exceed reasonable expectations for what is required," the report says.

While several species received more than 10 times the recovery dollars called for in their recovery plans, more than a dozen others received less than 10 percent of their annual funding needs.

Amid tight budgets, there are no easy answers, the report notes.

"Due to insufficient funding, tradeoffs are necessary, and the services must decide what recovery actions take priority," it says. "Investing in habitat restoration for a threatened mammal might delay reintroduction plans for an endangered fish, and surveying populations of an endangered bird might mean postponing a seed germination project for imperiled orchids."


The report makes several recommendations for making ESA work better.

They include establishing a system for prioritizing recovery funding "to maximize strategic outcomes for listed species" and to continue leveraging partners, including states and private landowners, to assist in species recovery.

State wildlife agencies can provide "boots on the ground" for research and management, and state legislatures can pass funding and laws that provide flexible recovery options, the report says.

Federal agencies, it notes, can also take steps to make voluntary partnerships with landowners less complicated and time-consuming, and market-based solutions such as habitat credit exchanges should continue to be utilized.

It also recommends steps to improve the use of monitoring and adaptive management, tap science to inform recovery criteria, rely on an "ecosystem-based" approach to increase the efficiency of managing for recovery and seek "climate-smart" conservation strategies.