There’s no question that the Endangered Species Act has had some major successes. When America’s beloved bald eagle was placed on the endangered list in the 1960s, there were fewer than 400 nesting pairs in the country — now, that number has risen to nearly 10,000. The brown pelican was nearly extinct in the U.S. when it was listed in the 1970s, but its numbers improved so dramatically that it was removed from the list in 2009.
But an endangered listing typically serves as an option of last resort for declining species in America — something that can swoop in when numbers get frighteningly low. There are many species that aren’t yet listed as endangered but whose numbers are threatened by pollution, loss of habitat, and other factors. That’s why a new report from the Center for American Progress recommends that the federal government create a new category under the Endangered Species Act — “at risk.” An at risk species would be a lower category than the ESA’s threatened or endangered listing, and wouldn’t afford a species any legal protections. But it would encourage voluntary efforts to conserve the at-risk species’ habitat, and would prioritize federal funding for incentives for this voluntary conservation.
“A farmer who has important aquatic habitat for an at-risk amphibian, for example, could receive priority consideration for funding from the Agriculture Department’s Wetlands Reserve Program,” the report states. “A land trust that is working with a rancher to place a conservation easement on high-priority habitat for at risk species might likewise get favorable consideration from the Land and Water Conservation Fund or the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.”
CREDIT: Center for American Progress
Part of the reason an at risk category is warranted, according to the report, is that in many cases, species that are listed at lower risk of extinction in the U.S. are declining at higher rates than species listed at higher risk of extinction. The report looked at data from the IUCN Red List and found that 34 percent of threatened animals in the U.S. are declining, while 44 percent of “near threatened” animals — those that don’t yet qualify for threatened or endangered status but could in the future — are declining. Similarly, 32 percent of threatened plant species are declining, while 43 percent of “near threatened” species are declining, along with 58 percent of threatened and 72 percent of near threatened birds.
“Unless policymakers can help curtail the threats to near threatened animals and plants and their habitats, hundreds — if not thousands — more U.S. wildlife species will become imperiled in the coming decades,” the report states.
CREDIT: Center for American Progress
The idea of taking a proactive approach towards species conservation was thrown into the spotlight last month, when the Interior Department announced it wouldn’t be listing the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. The reason, according to the federal agency, was that an “unprecedented” conservation effort in 11 western states had succeeded in reducing threats to the birds enough that they didn’t need Endangered Species Act protections.
“A big reason that the voluntary efforts to conserve the greater sage-grouse were successful was that the Endangered Species Act was there as a backstop — if the voluntary conservation commitments weren’t strong enough, it was clear that the bird would have to be listed,” Matt Lee-Ashley, one of the authors of the report and director of the public lands project at the Center for American Progress, said in an email. “This is a good example of how the Endangered Species Act not only helps species that are listed as endangered or threatened, but it also creates incentives for federal, state, and private partners to conserve species before they reach the point of needing to be listed.”
The Sand County Foundation, a nonprofit that works to increase conservation on private lands, documented successes in voluntary conservation in a recent report. The swift fox, according to the report, saw its numbers plummet in the first half of the century — so much so that the fox was almost wiped out in Montana by the 1950s. Efforts by the Blackfeet Nation, Defenders of Wildlife and the Cochrane Ecological Institute resulted in enough population growth that the fox was removed as a candidate for endangered species listing in 2001.
“Think of all the uproar associated with the return of another canid — the wolf,” Minette Glaser, swift fox project leader for Defenders of Wildlife, said in the report. “Here, we re-established swift foxes in a short time with no controversy, and for about $30,000 a year. Not bad.”
Under the plan outlined by the Center for American Progress report, these types of conservation efforts would be incentivized and would be undertaken before a species gets to the point where they could be considered endangered. This early intervention, the report points out, can have economic benefits: birding, fishing, hunting, and other wildlife-related activities are major industries, with the bird watching industry alone generating $13 billion in tax revenue each year. But ultimately, the report states, protecting species that are threatened with declines is a moral imperative, rather than an economic one — humans are often the ones causing species to decline, so humans should be the ones helping protect species when it’s needed. And aside from any economic value a plant or animal might have, it also has the intrinsic value that all life forms share.
“The belief that humans have a responsibility to the animals and plants with whom we share the Earth is a pillar of every major spiritual tradition,” the report states.