Blog Post

The Future of the Endangered Species Act: Challenges, Opportunities, and Partnerships

Dec 19, 2014 | James W. Boyd
 USFWSnortheast / flickr)
Newly hatched bog turtle (photo: Rosie Waluna / USFWS / flickr).

Over the last year, RFF began hosting a series of meetings between the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), NGOs, and the business community to discuss future species listing and recovery decisions under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). One goal is to take stock of the ESA’s many strengths and successes over the 40 years since its passage. The act has drawn significant attention to dwindling and endangered species—less than one percent of the 2,000 species listed as endangered have gone extinct—while influencing many land management decisions that affect threatened populations.

However, the primary focus of these dialogues is on challenges facing ESA implementation in coming years. The ESA’s impact on decisions and policy has by no means peaked. In fact, we are about to enter a crucial phase of the act’s implementation—if measured only by the sheer volume of species around which determinations must soon be made. Under the 2011 multi-district litigation settlement (MDLS), FWS agreed that by the end of fiscal year 2016 it would make final listing determinations for 251 species—and achieve critical habitat designations for those proposals to the extent practicable. Beyond 2016, FWS will face hundreds of additional listing and recovery determinations. In fact, more than 600 post-2016 listing determinations are already identified.

This workload will challenge FWS, the regulated community, and species advocates who seek sound, effective, and efficient resolution of these decisions and subsequent conservation and recovery plans. Although the ESA understandably brings to the surface a variety of conflicts (for example, between environmentalists and private landowners) the significance and volume of near-term decisions is also creating a sense of shared urgency and calls for cooperation and collaboration.

This sense of collective challenge—and opportunity—motivated our most recent dialogue hosted with FWS alongside the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement (NCASI). The meeting’s 40 participants focused on the science of species listing and recovery, the need for cooperation between FWS, business sector, and NGO science and scientists, and ways modern conservation principles can be better integrated into ESA implementation. The meeting addressed the following five goals:

  • Describing the number and timing of near-listing and recovery decisions
  • Identifying science gaps related to candidate species protection, listing, and recovery
  • Discussing the role of multi-species protection and landscape-scale conservation
  • Finding ways to maximize the relevance and benefits of science investments
  • Assessing science collaboration within the private sector, as well as between private and public institutions

The meeting’s biggest recurring theme was the challenge of collecting, analyzing, sharing, and deploying the science necessary to make good listing designations under the ESA’s timeline requirements. Participants referred to the strengths and weaknesses of current “ESA science”—the studies and data presented by FWS, petitioners, or regulated communities toward formal decisions—and noted that many listings are dependent on species-specific and regulation-specific science rather than portfolios with wider ESA applications. There was also widespread agreement that scientific collaboration among the business sector, NGOs, and government is currently low, and that increasing coordination between them could vastly improve regulatory outcomes while serving public interests—particularly in the coming years when the demands on listing and recovery analysis will be so great.

The dialogue affirmed a collective willingness to better coordinate science analysis in support of those decisions and a strong belief that doing so will improve outcomes for species and the private sector. Areas of collaborative opportunity include the following:

  • Improved analysis of species threats based on landscape-level analysis.
  • The potential role of “batching,” which organizes species into portfolios based on similarity in habitat needs, biological traits, geography, and threats.
  • Early identification by the regulated community of species whose listing would be most economically significant and subsequent analysis of the costs and effectiveness of conservation actions, including the ability of conservation to avoid listing or avoid endangerment status determination.
  • Engagement around species status assessments to allow partners to provide existing data and analysis early in the listing and recovery processes, and provide stakeholders with early understanding of data needs regarding species’ occurrence, habitats, existing conservation actions, threats, and potential partners for data collection and analysis.

To learn more about these issues and other collaborative science opportunities identified at the meeting, read the full proceedings.