At-Risk Species Conservation in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Listing a plant or animal as federally protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is proven to be successful in preventing extinction. However, this level of protection is America’s last line of defense. There are tremendous opportunities for voluntary conservation actions to be taken before a species may warrant listing and protections under the ESA. Voluntary actions can improve conditions for species and improve habitats for at-risk, listed, and common species alike.  

At-risk species conservation is the Service’s initiative promoting proactive conservation of fish, wildlife, and plants with partners before the species warrant protections under the ESA. The Service collaborates with all partners (Federal and State agencies, Tribes, private landowners, non-government organizations, and industries) across all landscapes to implement this initiative. The Service’s at-risk species efforts are intended to encourage and support voluntary actions that proactively conserve species & their habitats. We believe that if we work with partners to improve the status of species before they come to the Service for review, we may be able to reduce the impact of stressors and stabilize or increase populations. Ideally, this proactive conservation work may help us avoid listing these species – Thus improving species and their habitat, while simultaneously reducing regulatory burden. 

What do we mean by “at-risk species”? 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Policy Regarding Voluntary Prelisting Conservation Actions (735 FW 1, Page 34 of 64, Appendix 1) defines at-risk species as species that are currently unlisted but are declining and are at risk of becoming candidates for listing under the ESA (Service 2018). The policy goes on to state that at-risk species may include, but are not limited to:  

  • state-listed species,  
  • species identified by states as species of greatest conservation need, or  
  • species with state heritage ranks of G1 or G2. 

More generally, this definition provides the Service the opportunity to work with others to identify common species of concern. We embrace the definition language “not limited to” when working with our partners to identify at-risk species. For example, in many areas we are collaborating with Tribes as well as State and Federal partners to develop our broad list of species of concern. As you may expect, the full list of species meeting the definition of at-risk is expansive, numbering in the thousands. As a result, Service staff who lead at-risk species conservation are working with our partners to prioritize species based on the best available scientific information and common priorities. 

Regional Implementation of At-Risk Species Conservation 

The Service’s Regions implement conservation efforts for at-risk species in a variety of ways. The particular approach of each Region is guided by addressing local priorities, optimizing opportunities and partnerships, and managing overall workload. Some Service Regions focus their efforts on species that have been petitioned for evaluation for listing under the ESA (National Listing Workplan), whereas others work with a broader range of species, such as at-risk taxa identified by States (Regional Species of Greatest Conservation Need, and species identified in State Wildlife Action Plans), Tribes, and other partners. In all cases, we are focusing efforts on a discrete sub-set of the larger group of species that meet the definition of at-risk. In this way, the Service intends to achieve more success in preventing species from needing the protections of the ESA as well as benefit species that share the common habitat. 

Approaches to At-risk Conservation  

To determine how we can conserve at-risk species, we tend to think of proactive steps in two major bundles…    

1. Do we know why the species is in decline, and are we ready to work with others to implement activities, management actions or habitat protections to reverse the species decline? This is often referred to as implementation of conservation actions. When there is opportunity to collaborate with partners to implement conservation pro-actively, we can potentially reduce the likelihood of future petitions and/or be better prepared and informed if a petition is filed.     

2. Is there something we do not know about the species, i.e., a data gap, such as migration route, host plant, etc. This is often characterized as an information need or information we need to collect prior to initiating efforts to address the species decline. Filling data gaps improves the Service’s ability to review a species when we evaluate them for listing under the ESA through the species status assessment report (SSA) and evaluation process. 
For filling information needs, this can not only address data gaps if and when the Service is requested to review the species but also inform what conservation needs there could be so that we can work with partners to pro-actively implement them. This approach, in most cases, will not be linear, but rather tiered to navigate the evolving needs of the species. 

Ultimately, we want to pursue active conservation for species where we have sufficient information to trust that our work will result in the intended benefit for the at-risk species. And if we don’t have that level of information, we want to identify and deliver science so that we can.  

Partnerships are critical to this work, and if we want to have a meaningful impact, we know that we need our partners, both working with us on these actions and assisting us in identifying priority species. Ultimately, the at-risk conservation initiative depends on coordination among partners (e.g., States, local governments, Tribes, other Federal Partners, Non-government organizations, private landowners, and industry) to be successful.

How to get involved  

Are you in interested in collaborating with the Service to implement conservation actions or fill data gaps for at-risk species? The best available science and proactive conservation are used to monitor and conserve at-risk fish, wildlife and plants, and there are many opportunities to join our efforts. The best approach is to contact the Regional At-risk species coordinator or your local Field Office if you are already working with them. In addition, if you are a landowner, please check out our ‘Tools’ link to identify different opportunities to implement conservation for species on your land. Numerous voluntary tools protect private land interests and provide incentives, such as providing funding and technical expertise, developing conservation agreements with assurances, formulating best management practices and establishing conservation banks. The Service continues to pursue new ideas and creative ways to use those flexibilities and tools.

Region 1

American Samoa, Hawaii, Idaho, Mariana Islands, Oregon, Pacific Trust Territories, Washington

Region 2

Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas

Karelee Jewell
Conservation Biologist
Science Applications,
Conservation and Adaptation Resources Toolbox
Science Communication,
Aquatic Conservation,
Human Dimensions,
Collaborative Conservation,
Interactive Web-Based Product Design,
Citizen Science,
Community Engagement

Region 3

Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin

Region 4

Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands 

Region 5

Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia

a selfie of a white man in a boat with a whale's tail emerging from the water behind him
Regional At-Risk Species Coordinator
Science Applications,
Military Lands Conservation
Additional Role(s)
Regional Military Partnership Coordinator
Endangered Species Act,
Sikes Act,
Conservation planning,
Threats assessment,
Forming and managing conservation partnerships

Region 6

Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming

Region 7


a woman with short dark hair in front of a canyon.
Regional Proactive Conservation Coordinator
Ecological Services
At-risk Species Conservation,
Endangered Species Act,
Threats assessment

Region 8

California, Nevada

Conservation today for a better tomorrow: stories of at-risk species 

At-risk wildlife across the country has benefitted from collaboration among state and federal agencies, companies, non-governmental organizations, researchers and many other partners. We highlight the people, places and animals that are making at-risk wildlife conservation and recovery efforts successful.

a hand holding a frog
Recently, 115 Foothill yellow-legged frogs, hailing from the Oakland Zoo, called the Plumas National Forest their new home. Little did these frogs know they were the part of a historical conservation moment – the first ever population of captive-reared Foothill yellow-legged frogs released into the...