US law protecting endangered species hampered by lack of resources, study finds | American News
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has long been hampered by insufficient resources, leaving the main US law for the protection of plants and animals filled with delays and failures in the recovery of species, said Wednesday researchers.
The findings, published in the scientific journal Plos One on the eve of the law’s 50th anniversary, provided insight into why despite hundreds of species being listed, only 54 in the country have fully recovered.
“It’s unfortunate that although we have this very noble law, we haven’t really given it the resources it needs to succeed,” said study author Erich K Eberhard.
The new report, which looked at data from the Federal Register, found that since 1985, one of ESA’s main sources of funding has shrunk by almost 50% when measured by species.
Although the law has proven effective in preventing species extinction (it has saved more than 99% of listed species from extinction, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service), it has not been as effective in species recovery.
The authors explained that typically, by the time a species has received protection, it has already reached “dangerously low population sizes”, making recovery extremely difficult.
Eberhard gave the example of the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, which was listed as endangered in 2000 when its population was reduced to just 100 individuals. “Now, 20 years after the fact, it’s still an ESA-listed species at risk,” he said.
Between 1992 and 1999, the average waiting time for species under application for listing was 5.9 years, while between 2000 and 2009 it was 9.1 years, according to the ‘study. In recent years, it has been reduced to three years.
The ESA advises that there should only be a two-year waiting period, as longer delays can put a species, whose population is already very small, at greater risk.
But the report explained that the low population numbers probably had more to do with a long backlog of rare species, rather than a sudden decline of more common species waiting to be listed.
The study relied on a report published in 1993 that painted an equally bleak picture of the law.
“In this article, we called for earlier protection of declining species,” explained David S Wilcove, professor of ecology at Princeton University and author of the new and previous studies. “Then after almost 30 years had passed, the question was, had anything changed? And the answer is no.”
The previous study found that from 1985 to 1991, the median population size when a species was listed by the ESA was 1,075 for vertebrates and 999 for invertebrates. Viable population sizes for vertebrates are measured in the thousands, while invertebrates are even higher, Wilcove explained.
In the years that followed, the authors said that the population size, when listed by the ESA, remained largely unchanged.
Today, the rate of species extinction has escalated due to factors such as the climate crisis, habitat loss, and exploitation through hunting and overfishing. About 1 million species are threatened with extinction, some within decades, according to the 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
At the time of this report, there were 1,270 plants and animals in the United States listed as endangered and 402 listed as threatened.
The new report was released just two months before the meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, where world leaders are expected to adopt a plan to conserve biodiversity over the coming decades. The United States is one of the few countries that has not ratified the treaty, but is used to participating in it.
Eberhard said that as leaders begin to develop these ambitious goals, it would be good for them to heed the cautionary tale found in these findings.
“It’s great to have super ambitious goals, [but] you have to support them with real action,” he said. “In this case, real action is to provide the Fish and Wildlife Service with the resources it needs.”