US Endangered Species Law Too Little, Too Late

Nearly 50 years since its introduction, the US Endangered Species Act is plagued by decades-old criticisms that hinder its ability to help.

By Erich Eberhard, Columbia University

NEW YORK, March 8 – Over one million species globally are projected to go extinct in the foreseeable future. How humans, today, respond to this extinction crisis — or don’t — will permanently shape the diversity of life on Earth.

For the past half century, the United States has leant on its Endangered Species Act as the strongest law to prevent species extinction in the country. The Endangered Species Act has also served as a model of conservation policy to other nations. 

However, a longstanding concern of supporters and opponents of the law has been the relatively low number of listed species that have recovered to the point where they no longer need protection. Only 54 species in the US have met this goal in the 50 years since the law was enacted.

Many reasons have been given for this low recovery rate, such as a pattern of not protecting species until their populations have become very small. Small populations are more vulnerable to environmental and genetic threats, and more likely to go extinct before conservation intervention can recover the species to a stable population size. 

This pattern was first detected in 1993 in a study that found species being listed for protection under the law had, on average, just 1075 remaining individuals for vertebrate species, 999 for invertebrate species, and 120 for plant species.

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, researchers in the US repeated the methodology of the 1993 study to determine whether the US had become more proactive in listing imperiled species before their population sizes are dangerously low.

The “wait times” (the length of time between a species being first identified as potentially deserving of protection and it being granted protected status) and trends in funding for listing and recovery of endangered species were also examined.

The results paint a grim picture: most species are still not receiving protection until their populations are precariously small, dimming their prospects of recovery. First reported in 1993, this pattern has persisted throughout the intervening quarter century.

Consistently, the majority of species petitioned for protection under the law have experienced delays in receiving protected status, which further increases the risk of extinction to species with already small or rapidly declining populations.

The results suggest that inadequate funding of conservation activities under the US Endangered Species Act has persisted for decades, with no clear relationship to which political party is in power.

As the number of imperiled species — and the threats they face — multiply, the bodies which oversee management of endangered species in the US are being asked to do more with less resources. 

In 1973, the US signaled a commitment to conservation when it passed the Endangered Species Act. But in the 50 years since, the policy has been blunted by delays in listing imperiled species, typically small population sizes when species are listed, and inadequate funding for recovery actions. 

The framework for an effective policy still exists within the law. However, the US is overdue in backing up the lofty goals of its conservation policy with the funding necessary to fully recover imperiled species.

Erich Eberhard is an ecologist from the United States. His research focuses on biodiversity and its role in ecosystem dynamics.

Article courtesy of 360info.

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