The U.S. Endangered Species Act has helped prevent extinctions for more than four decades. Throughout that time, millions of dollars have gone toward saving landmark species like the bald eagle, the California condor, and the grizzly bear. Now a new study is questioning whether the underfunded act needs to be redistributed more fairly to get the most bang for its buck, as it is overly helping some species while neglecting others.
The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, calculates that 1,125 species are protected under the Act. And while that means $1.21 billion per year should be allocated solely to recovery efforts, the study says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has less than 25 percent of that available.
Moreover, failing recovery plans sometimes get overfunded while many species that may have a better chance suffer “injurious neglect,” Leah Gerber, lead author of the study, told ThinkProgress via email. “Deciding how to allocate is difficult, so it’s important to do it right,” said Gerber, an Arizona State University conservation biologist.
One example is the northern spotted owl, an animal that’s dwindled for 11 years despite the $4.4 million a year spent on it. The recommended budget for this owl is $1.9 million, Gerber said, adding that meanwhile the Bakersfield cactus has declined for four years despite getting 3 percent of the money it needs. That’s “a meager $130,000 per year.”
According to the study, redistributing from the 50 most expensive but failing recovery plans would eliminate deficits for more than 180 plant and animal species suffering injurious neglect. Funds are allocated from federal to regional levels, and regions decide on how to prioritize, Gerber said. However, “there is no general strategy. Agency personnel responsible for recovery plans are overworked and underfunded.”
Experts reached agreed with Gerber that geography, staffing issues, partnerships, and past funding patterns determine allocations. As one expert put it, reallocating funds from one species to another may affect one or more U.S. Fish and Wildlife workers, so the agency has a disincentive to change. Recent research from Australia also suggests that ‘ugly’ animals like rodents and other less appealing species attract less funding and research.
In a statement to ThinkProgress, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it values “all information that can help us in developing a more strategic approach to allocating these limited resources.” The agency couldn’t confirm whether the number of endangered species or the cost Gerber projected are accurate, but it confirmed that the agency doesn’t have a specific method to allocate funding.
“With limited ESA funds available, it is incumbent on us to make smart choices for the benefit of our nation’s most imperiled species,” the statement said. In 2014, the latest available figures, the agency spent more than $193 million on recovery efforts under the Endangered Species Act. Recovery funding is used for species recovery plans, monitoring of listed species, monitoring of delisted species, and more.
Yet Gerber’s plan is controversial even among environmentalists. For starters, it means placing a value judgment on wildlife, and who’s to say that an owl is prettier or much more needed than a cactus? Gerber’s idea also acknowledges defeat and gets Congress — the agency in charge of funding — off the hook, some environmentalists reached said.
“Folks have talked for years about the underfunding of the Endangered Species Act, and it is a real problem,” Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told ThinkProgress. But “once you get to the mindset that you can write off a species because they are sort of economically inefficient, then you can start writing them off for any reason.”
“The answer is not to simply rearrange the pie in a different way,” said Hartl, noting Congress has been weakening the Endangered Species Act for years. Hartl, like other environmentalists reached, advocates for a bigger pie. But “questions about funding are almost too hard to have because one side is totally uninterested,” he said.
Others, however, back the plan and consider this so-called conservation triage as the only way to recover endangered wildlife in a time of accelerated climate change and habitat loss. Indeed, some animals have gone extinct up to 100 times faster than usual, according to recent research.
“If we are to see more recoveries under the Endangered Species Act, it almost certainly is the case that the wealth has to be redistributed and that it needs to be more equitable,” Ya-Wei Li, senior director of endangered species conservation at Defenders of Wildlife, told ThinkProgress. He said creating a formal and transparent way to redistribute resources would force Congress to see what a lack of funding creates. It “shifts the responsibility back to lawmakers,” said Li, noting New Zealand and Australia have created successful evaluation systems.
Federal agencies are for the time being not planning on making any changes. And even if they did, they would likely get push-back from all sides. Meanwhile, the Endangered Species Act is bringing back some species at the expense of others. “Every single day the wildlife agencies make this decision,” Li said.