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Defining Success Under the Endangered Species Act
Photo Credit: © FloridaStock
Over its 40-year history, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been recognized as the nation's strongest conservation law. It is also seen as one of the most controversial—respected by many and vilified by some.
When the ESA is criticized, it is often for the relatively modest number of species that have been delisted thus far due to recovery. However, this is not a complete measure of success. In truth, the goal of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is to take plants and animals off the endangered and threatened species list when they have fully recovered, meaning their survival no longer depends on the protections the ESA affords.
While the removal of a species from the endangered species list due to recovery is great cause for celebration, perhaps the most encouraging moments of the recovery process are those that demonstrate the effectiveness of the ESA in preventing extinction and achieving this ultimate goal. It usually takes considerable time, resources, and even luck to reverse a species' slide toward extinction. This decline often occurs over decades or even centuries, and the road to recovery can be a long one as well. A more complete measure of success then includes the number of species that are no longer declining, have stable populations, or have gained a solid foothold on the path toward recovery and are improving in status.
The ESA requires the Service not only to conserve vulnerable species and the ecosystems upon which they depend, but to restore them to a secure status. And when it comes to imperiled wildlife, 98 percent of all species listed as either endangered or threatened under the ESA still survive.
As a species' status improves, it can be upgraded to the less critical category of threatened. To date, 27 formerly endangered species have been reclassified on their way to full recovery, and the most recent 5-year review of listed species identifies another 29 for upgrading to threatened. One of these species, the wood stork (Mycteria Americana) of the southeastern U.S., has rebounded enough that the Service proposed reclassifying it as threatened last December. The same review found that 30 additional species may soon be ready for delisting due to recovery.
Photo Credit: USFWS
Although significant progress has been made in safeguarding our nation's imperiled species, many still face formidable and long-term challenges to recovery. Sometimes these threats are well understood, such as the network of dams that block the return of salmon and other migratory fish to their spawning streams. But new dangers are constantly emerging. In recent years, white nose syndrome, a terrible new fungal disease, has infected caves throughout the eastern U.S., wiping out entire colonies of both common and endangered bats. Biologists' worst fears were confirmed when the plague began spreading into Midwestern caves, working its way westward. A few years earlier, the introduced West Nile virus likewise decimated many native bird populations.
Biologists know that the best way to manage a conservation problem is to prevent it. Likewise, an easier and more cost-effective way to conserve a wildlife species is to secure its future before it becomes imperiled and needs ESA protection to ensure its survival. Preventing the need to list a species makes its recovery unnecessary. The Service is now putting greater emphasis on partnerships with landowners, state wildlife managers, and others to respond to threats before they become critical. Just last year, the Service joined voluntary conservation efforts by the states of Texas and New Mexico, oil and gas operators, private landowners, and other stakeholders to maintain habitat for the dune sagebrush lizard (Sceloporus arenicolus). As a result, populations of this unique reptile should remain healthy enough to keep it off the endangered species list.
Working with partners, the Service uses a range of conservation tools to recover endangered and threatened species—to ensure success. These tools include restoring and acquiring habitat, removing introduced animal predators or invasive plant species, conducting surveys, monitoring individual populations, and breeding species in captivity and releasing them into their historic range. Collaborative efforts are critical to recovery success.
With the support of partners, the ESA has delivered some inspiring success stories, having saved species such as the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes), peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus anatum), and the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) – the very symbol of our nation's strength – from extinction.
What We Do
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