Number of species awaiting endangered protection drops to all-time low

The list of plant and animal candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act has dropped from 251 in 2010 to 60, according to the latest update from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Jessie Cohen/Smithsonian's National Zoo
A 2-day-old North Island brown kiwi chick rests in its incubator at the Smithsonian's National Zoo. The chick, which hatched on Monday, Feb. 13, is only the second of these endangered kiwis to hatch at the Smithsonian's National Zoo during the Zoo's 116-year history.

The number of animals and plants waiting to be classified as "protected" under the Endangered Species Act has dropped to an all-time low, according to the latest list released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and as confirmed by the Center for Biological Diversity.

Currently, there are 60 species in total – 42 animals and 18 plants – that the government agency recognizes as candidates for services under the ESA. Signed into law in 1973, the act aims to provide conservation for species in danger of extinction.

“The Endangered Species Act has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the plants and animals under its care, but the law only works after species make it onto the list. It’s heartening to see so many more species now getting the protection that will save them,” Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

The list of candidates at hand is not the same thing as the total number of species for which applications have been submitted for protection. Candidate species have already been screened by the Fish and Wildlife Service and verified as threatened or already endangered. But they do not immediately warrant protection because there are other species ranked as higher priorities.

Historically, due to backlog and delays, more than 40 species have gone extinct while waiting as candidates on the list. A decade ago, there were 286 species on the list and the average wait was 17 years.

But in 2011, Fish and Wildlife Service and the Center for Biological Diversity were able to drastically improve the efficiency of the process, allowing the service to address the 757 species that had been under request for protection. Since then, 151 of them have gained final protection.

The latest list of candidates reflects no new species since last year. Two species, however, have been removed from the list – two kinds of anchialine pool shrimp native to Hawaii.

The Endangered Species Act celebrated its 42nd anniversary Monday. The ESA is credited with having saved nearly nearly 1,600 species – 700 animals and 900 plants – from going extinct. Today, there are about 2,215 species listed as endangered or threatened under the act.

Scientists say it may be too soon to assess the effectiveness of the act after only four decades, but many agree that it has struggled to return at-risk populations to sustainable levels. According to Peter Alagona, an associate professor of environmental studies and history at the University of California-Santa Barbara, only about 2 percent of animals under the act have been declared as no longer endangered.

Some Republican lawmakers have cited this fact to recommend overhauling the act and giving states more power over the species that fall within their territory.

"Many people point out that some of the species that have had the most attention and the most resources dedicated to their conservation under the law are still continuing to decline," Mr. Alagona said on a program for Wisconsin Public Radio.

Environmental advocates, on the contrary, say that the act could be strengthened to accommodate more species and give scientists more flexibility in conservation practices. They argue that partisan politics have dissuaded lobbyists from getting an amended bill on the Congress floor again.

“Scientists agree that the planet’s currently undergoing a major extinction crisis, the sixth in Earth’s history,” Ms.Curry said. “The Endangered Species Act is one of the strongest laws any nation has to safeguard biological diversity in the face of ever-increasing threats.”

In addition to the 60 species currently on the candidates list, another 500 are now awaiting review.

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