Without Proper Funding, Conservation Laws Can’t Conserve Anything
More than one million species of plants and animals are expected to go extinct in the foreseeable future. The rates of global species extinction are accelerating, prompting increasing concern from the international community. The U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), enacted in 1973, was considered a model for endangered species protection around the world. However, after almost 50 years, the number of species declared recovered is exceedingly small. Indeed, just 54 species have been listed as endangered or threatened and then eventually delisted since the ESA went into effect.
According to this report, the conservation community has put forth various ideas to explain why the ESA, despite its promise, performs poorly. For example, an older study found that species listed between 1985-1991 were already dwindling with very small population sizes by the time they received protection, making it more difficult to bounce back. Likewise, funding and landowner support of ESA initiatives may be limited. But without facts, these ideas are simply speculation.
To offer more insight into why the ESA hasn’t been as effective as possible, researchers gathered relevant data for the period 1992-2020. They analyzed U.S. government sources containing the following information:
- Population sizes of species of concern at the time of listing.
- Wait time between when protection was first requested for a species and when it finally gained protected status.
- Funding available for protection activities for listed species.
Researchers used data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to gather a list of plants and animals granted protection during the study period. FWS notices of species’ proposed and final listings under the ESA provided the required population data and wait times. Funding data came from the text of federal annual budget legislation.
From 1992-2020, a total of 970 species came under ESA protection. Just over two-thirds (68%) were plants, 18% were invertebrates, and the remaining 14% were vertebrates. The authors found no significant differences when comparing the population sizes of newly-listed species between the periods 1985-1991 and 1992-2020. In other words, many vulnerable species show very small population sizes when they finally receive ESA protections.
From 1992-1999, it took a median of 5.9 years for a species to receive ESA protections after being proposed for listing. This figure rose over 50% to a median of 9.1 years in the 2000-2009 timeframe before plunging to a median of 3 years between 2010 and 2020. Under ESA rules, the listing process is supposed to take no more than two years. The authors also note that in recent years, most of the species declared endangered received this protection because of petitions or lawsuits from non-governmental entities. With extended wait times, species that are dwindling may decline further still.
Overall results showed that small population sizes at the time of listing combined with delayed wait times and insufficient funding are weakening the ESA’s impact. According to the authors, some of the wait times seemed to be the result of a large influx of petitions in a given timeframe, but inadequate FWS agency budgets likely exacerbate this problem. And once a species is listed, there is often not enough money to properly fund recovery efforts. Indeed, appropriations to manage listed species have declined nearly 50% (in 2019 dollars) since 1985.
One obvious answer for animal advocates is to call for more funding into wild animal (and plant) protection. But public support is also critical. Advocates can foster this support by learning from local communities affected by endangered species listing and recovery efforts. They can also bring together ranchers, farmers, local residents, businesses, and government representatives to craft local solutions. This type of consensus-building is a slow process, but it may represent the best chance to conserve our diminishing biodiversity.