How the Endangered Species Act sets species on paths to recovery

Plans set in motion decades ago to save US species are seeing results, with more delistings from the 1973 Endangered Species Act under the Obama administration than under all previous administrations since the act's inauguration. 

USFWS/Courtesy of Chuck Graham
The Santa Cruz Island fox is one of three subspecies of fox removed from the Endangered Species Act in August 2016.

Species are going extinct about 1,000 times faster than if humans weren’t part of the equation, according to Stuart Pimm’s 2014 research published in the journal Science. As such, many scientists now proclaim that Earth is experiencing its sixth great extinction.

“I hate that we concentrate on all the gloom and despair,” says Dr. Pimm, a conservation ecologist at Duke University, bemoaning his own research. “I think the story is that we are now becoming very successful at finding solutions. We’re learning how to do this craft we call conservation.”

And the numbers suggest that he’s right.

Under the Obama administration, 28 endangered or threatened species have recovered sufficiently to be removed from the endangered species list – more than under all other administrations combined since the Endangered Species Act (ESA) became law in 1973, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Some of this success is attributed to timing, says Michael Bean, principal deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks at the Department of the Interior. “None of these recoveries occurred overnight...,” says Mr. Bean.  “What we’re witnessing today in terms of our delistings are the fruits of many decades of labor.”

The shortage of delistings – 46 since the act’s inception – has been a source of criticism for the ESA. “In the past people have complained that species reached their recovery goals and then Fish and Wildlife Service still didn’t de-list them,” says Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “So the administration has taken that a little more seriously, that when a species does meet its recovery goals ... they delist it.”

But such pressure could be rushing declarations of recovery, cautions Daniel Rohlf, professor of law and of counsel at the Lewis & Clark Law School.

Citing controversy over the West Virginia Northern flying squirrel, Mr. Rohlf says the Fish and Wildlife Service has revised some of the recovery goals for species in a way that has allowed it to delist that species. He suggests that this may be a way for the service to tout its successes in the face of opponents of the ESA. But, he says, “I think we need real, biological recovery rather than public relations recovery.”

Yet this might also come down to where one draws the line, says Vicky Meretsky, director of the master of science in environmental science program at Indiana University Bloomington. “Often there is a delisting sooner than the most ardent conservationists would want.”

Some expectations might have to be adjusted, she says. For example, with much of the land now populated by humans, it’s unlikely that many other species will be able to return to the places they used to dominate.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has also been pushing to prevent species from even being listed, says Bean. The thought is that if the situation can be remedied before a species’ situation is so dire that it needs the support of the ESA, the organism can rebound more quickly.

In an effort to prevent listings, the federal agencies are partnering with state governments, landowners, industry leaders, and other groups that would have to change policies to comply with the ESA once a species is listed. This way measures can be taken to save a suffering species without legislation.

Some conservationists worry these partnerships could mean support for endangered species is delayed or reduced, but “it’s a very complicated tap dance,” Dr. Meretsky says. “The law doesn’t step in until these things are already either teetering on the brink or sliding over the edge of the brink.”

She says forging partnerships could be a productive path forward for conservation, particularly because the agencies enforcing the ESA are dealing with a finite budget.

It’s not just about adding species to the list or taking them off. “If you look at the biological status of delisted species, I think that’s a truer indicator of whether the Endangered Species Act actually works to protect biodiversity,” Rohlf says.

Pimm agrees, saying that what counts is not so much how many species have recovered, but rather “how many have not gone extinct.”

“Once a species gets on the list, its chances of going extinct are quite small,” Pimm says. “The Endangered Species Act is a very powerful tool.”

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