Which Species Should Be Saved? The Endangered Species Act, Listings, Conservation-Reliant Species, and Prioritizing Wildlife Conservation
Which Species Should Be Saved? The Endangered Species Act, Listings, Conservation-Reliant Species, and Prioritizing Wildlife Conservation
The most difficult wildlife conservation issue concerns prioritization of wildlife conservation needs and how this prioritization should affect the implementation of the Endangered Species Act. A series of articles have raised these issues and generated debates among wildlife conservation researchers that need to be addressed by those implementing wildlife conservation policies. In a 2010 article in Conservation Letters, Scott, Goble, Haines, Wiens & Maile questioned the ESA’s implicit assumption that wildlife species that are provided protection under the Act can be restored to self-sustaining status without continued support by humans. They claim that 84 percent of species are “conservation-reliant” in the sense that they will require continued support to contend with forces that threaten the species especially due to threats from “expanding human populations” such as vanishing and degraded habitats, invasive species, and the impacts of climate change. Moreover, they point out that ESA-related funding and resources are inadequate to meet the needs of currently listed species while a steady stream of more species are being threatened that are not yet listed. They suggest that prioritization might consider a “cost-effectiveness return on investment” approach but “other approaches should be explored.” They suggest that species should be delisted if an agreement is reached with “state agencies and non-governmental organizations” who agree to provide sustained support needed to deal with these threats—thus delisting need not be considered “the endpoint of management.” To illustrate their point, they cite the case of the delisting of the Columbian white-tailed deer that was based on the assurances of the promise of various public managers and landowners to implement “land use ordinances, set-asides land, and other forms of agreements that would sustain the population of the species. Rohlf et al. (Conservation-Reliant Species: Toward a Biology-Based Definition, BioScience, July 2014, 64(7), 601-611) propose to redefine conservation-reliance so that the definition is based only on biology and separate from the decision as to whether the species should be listed or not listed under the ESA. They state that listing decisions are “value” based and should be distinguished from whether the species is conservation-reliant. Their revised definition of conservation reliance refers to reliance as a “spectrum” based on the degree to which a species needs direct human intervention.”
Conservation-reliance turns out to be a complex concept making it difficult as a basis for deciding important questions such as what species should be listed or delisted. Rohlf, Carroll & Hartl (2014) propose that reliance be viewed as a “spectrum” and as the “degree to which a species needs direct human intervention to its environment to enable the species to persist in the wild.” They differentiate between species that will need continuous human intervention to persist in the wild such as the black-footed ferret versus species such as gray wolves whose wild existence would be assured if migratory routes were protected—thus they are referred to as “weakly conservation reliant.” However, they go on to state that gray wolves and grizzlies should not be delisted until connectivity is assured. They address the problem of inadequate resources for wildlife conservation by suggesting that more Federal ESA resources be devoted to those species that are less conservation reliant and thus have a greater chance at recovery—a “triage” approach. They also suggest greater use of “threatened” than “endangered status” and alter the ESA definition of success from self-sustaining populations to a “more modest” goal. It is possible that this approach could lead to controversial actions such as letting some species go extinct in order to give more resources to a species that is not in such dire straits. Some human causes of threats to species such as alligators in the U.S. South have been relatively easy to control by controlling the number of alligators “taken” through the existing network of Federal and state wildlife departments. But other threats such as those from expanded human populations taking away critical habitat and increased roads and road traffic are much more difficult. Climate change is cited as a significant threat to many species such as Hawaiian Islands “endemic waterbirds” (see Underwood et al., Plos One, 2013, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0067872&type=printable ) and is caused by humans but affecting it is currently beyond the resources of any government. So it is no easy measure to determine which threats are most controllable or if they can be “managed” at all. Given the complexity of determining causes and solutions to threats to species, is the idea of basing listing on the degree of its conservation reliance even a feasible or useful approach? Another key point is that failure to make explicit decisions about priorities among species is not a neutral act. Indeed, under the Obama as in preceding administrations, the lack of resources to devote to listing new species has resulted in the USFWS designation a new category of listings as “warranted but precluded” due to lack of resources. Since the resources of the USFWS are certain to decline further under the Trump Administration, the biases noted above that led to the current list of endangered species are likely to be cemented.
Although the USFWS has made no official pronouncements about altered ESA goals, the agency has been informally converted to a less ambitious ESA. As I detail in Chapter 6 of Wildlife Politics, the habitat conservation program is a stakeholder program in which the USFWS has used the potential threat to list as a negotiating chip to bring recalcitrant “stakeholders” such as developers, landowners, ranchers, and states to the bargaining table where compromises are made by both them and conservation stakeholders. Although science does play a significant role in these negotiations, the goal is to reach agreement that will be acceptable to major stakeholders and thus none of them will be fully satisfied with the agreement. The key problem in HCPs (and other types of conservation agreements) is implementation—will the agreement be implemented. The answer depends on the specific HCP and the actors responsible for implementing the agreements. In my book, I cite the example of a plan approved by Obama’s Interior Secretary Salazar concerning to protect the sagebrush lizard in Texas and New Mexico that is to be implemented by members of the Texas Oil and Gas industry and the specific agreements reached between the states and the industry are not clearly described nor the details even available to the USFWS much less the general public. Salazar hailed the agreement as an example of how the ESA “should work.” This case is reminiscent of the actions taken by Bruce Babbitt under President Clinton—Babbitt was most concerned about overly aggressive conservation actions that would politically wreck the ESA and leads to collapse of Congressional support for it. Indeed, given its limited resources and the fierce resistance on the part of many states and powerful affected stakeholders such as developers and extractive industries, one could argue that this conversion to a “softer” ESA was a necessity.
Goble et al.’s position seems to be that if there are adequate safeguards that other levels of governments (e.g., states) and/or actions agreed to by other groups such as non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders in the decision (e.g.., landowners), that it is acceptable to delist a species such as wolves from the Federal ESA. Part of the debate concerns the assumption implicit in the ESA that its goal is to recover species so they are self-sustaining without need of Federal intervention—Goble et al. believe this to be unrealistic goal for many if not most species but Rohlf et al. contend that this assumption is still part of the ESA. They go on to argue that to allow delisting based on planned actions by other actors would lead to difficult “line-drawing” and would likely lead to “slippery slopes” where species might be delisted without adequate safeguards. They go on to cite the example of Kirtland’s Warbler “delisting plan” that included vague funding assurances and unspecified partners who will exert controls on cowbirds—one of the major threats to the warblers. In other words, how solid do the plans for delisting species have to be in order for there to be a delisting of the species by the Federal government? Bocetti et al. (Using Conservation Management Agreements to Secure Postrecovery Perpetuation of Conservation-Reliant Species: The Kirtland’sWarbler as a Case Study, BioScience, v62, #10, 2012) state that in the Kirtland’s case, the USFWS required signed memoranda of agreements to demonstrate the conservation efforts were assured. Should a species be listed until such enforceable agreements are signed? If the plan assumptions are not implemented, should the species be relisted? Thus the issue of implementing agreements is complex and there is NO currently available data base available from USFWS or other entities to determine how well conservation agreements are being implemented and enforced.
Underlying the debate are even more fundamental questions concerning wildlife conservation: since funding for the USFWS has decreased in inflation-adjusted terms. Redford et al. (BioScience, January 2011 / Vol. 61 No. 1, 39-48) state that in 2003 the USFWS determined that it would cost $286 million to process the 286 candidates for listing at that time compared to their budget allotment of $16 million and that the USFWS budget has decreased even further since then. Given scarce resources, the difficult question is how should the Federal government determine which species to protect? Neel et al. (By the Numbers: How is Recovery Defined by the US Endangered Species Act? Bioscience. July 2012, 62, #7. 646-657) point to a related consideration concerning the areal range of the species—should species be delisted before they are restored to their full historical range? Neel et al. contrast the position towards the bald eagle which was not delisted until after its range “exceeded that when Europeans settled in the U.S. while the gray wolf was delisted when it occupied only “five percent” of its historical range. Practical politics and limited resources determine USFWS actions. For example, when Obama’s USFWS proposed to delist the gray wolf and were challenged by conservationists, the then director of the USFWS, Dan Ashe, wrote in a New York Times letter that continued focus on wolves would take away from efforts to restore other species and that delisting of species shows the public that the ESA has had success and thus is necessary. Indeed, conservative critics have pounced on the lack of delistings as evidence that the ESA is a failure [see http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/05/opinion/using-scarce-resources-to-save-endangered-species.html?emc=edit_tnt_20140904&nlid=10365419&tntemail0=y&_r=0 ] Of course, conservationists such as Edward O. Wilson have rejected the limited number of delistings as a success measure, arguing that it is akin to criticizing “emergency rooms” because people “die there.”
In my book, Wildlife Politics, I discuss how listing decisions are based on a mixture of politics and science. When a charismatic species such as the bald eagle is threatened, politicians and hence the USFWS cannot ignore the demand to protect and restore the species. I point out how there are inherent biases in that listings favor species with which humans are most familiar such as mammals over invertebrates and surface fish familiar to anglers versus ocean bottom dwellers and species that are not of interest to anglers. Moreover, I show how these biases are international—the same pattern appears in the implementation of other “endangered species acts” of nations such as Canada and Australia. Indeed, I discuss how an important variable affecting protections is whether a species has an interest group devoted to it. For example, sea horses do have such a group (Project Sea Horse) and were the first fish to be listed by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Indeed, some species such as wild horses have such a strong human following, they draw support strong enough to defeat environmentalists who are concerned with their effects on other species. A more subtle bias is that in order for a species to be listed, there must be enough data collected about it to justify the listing but it is charismatic species in which humans are interested that draw the most research and hence data to justify listing.
Still, the USFWS and researchers have been aware of these biases and have been trying to move away from focus on charismatic species and I cite some data that they have had some success in doing this in my book. But, if we are to prioritize listings on some non-political basis, what would be the criteria? Based on ecology, it is possible that some species are especially crucial to their ecosystems (keystone species?) so that their disappearance would have a disproportionate impact on their ecosystems and hence biodiversity. Certainly, science may be able to help in determining at least two of the “priorities” supposed to be used by USFWS in listings: degree of threat and recovery potential, though again information available on these are related to how interested humans find the species. Science may uncover generalizations that can be used to set priorities. For example, arguments have been made for apex predators ranging from wolves to sea otters whose disappearance would engender a “trophic cascade.” Though research on wolves has shown support for the hypothesis, it also demonstrates how complex the situation is and shows that restoring wolves does not easily restore the ecosystems that were lost due to their absence. Indeed, some research points to the opposite direction—the crucial importance of creatures at the bottom of feeding chain. Certainly, it is desirable that with limited resources that science should be looked to for information on prioritization of listings but based on my reading of the literature, this is a very complex question and not much “hard data” is available as of now.
The advent of the Trump Administration and Republican control of Congress may throw an entirely different light on the listings and prioritization issue. Many bills are being advanced that will take away the power of USFWS to list species (e.g., removal of gray wolves from protection) and the small budget of the USFWS is likely to be reduced to even tinier budget with the Federal government unlikely to be of much help to protecting much less restoring species. Moreover, when an “updated” and weakened Republican ESA replaces the current one, NGOs like the Center for BioDiversity will no longer likely be able to use the Federal judiciary to defend the interests of species that run counter to developers, extractive industries, and hunters. Whatever support there is for threatened species may depend on state governments and whether non-governmental organizations interested in wildlife conservation. Some states with fairly strong state endangered species acts may be able to at least preserve the status quo but many states wildlife conservation institutions (e.g., “game departments in the West) policies are dominated by interests antithetical to any species that threatens the interests of hunters, ranchers, and extractive industries. As I show in my Wildlife Politics book, survey data shows that there are large percentages, often majority percentages, of people even in the supposedly most conservative western states that support threatened species such as wolves, grizzlies etc. Indeed, even more incongruous, I cite data that species such as wolves and grizzlies bring in more dollars to these states in tourism and hence are more important economically than the relatively small groups of hunters and ranchers. Despite these existential facts, anti-wildlife conservation groups have continued to dominate wildlife institutions. It will be interesting to see if the likely replacement of ESA protections and increased threats to species will bring wildlife conservation issues to the attention of the “silent majority” and lead them to pressure their politicians and wildlife institutions to take action to protect biodiversity. Science will be of assistance in documenting increased threats to species due to weakened ESA protections but ultimately politics will depend on the awakening of the silent majority.
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