It being the holidays, I am taking a bit of a different approach to the Blog today. Also, it is brief.
The scientific literature evaluating the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act is large. The USFWS has been pretty open about publishing status and expenditure data. Numerous researchers have culled through these data to look at critical habitat listings, recovery plans, expenditures, trends in status, the relationship between spending, critical habitat listing, recovery plan completion and status. The list goes on.
What has been largely missing has been an analysis of the impact of section 7 consultations, where the USFWS decides whether or not a proposed action imposes undue risk to the species. This is made difficult by the fact that there are thousands of consultations, formal and informal, and the agency does not enter these all into computers and make them publicly available. And, this is the aspect of the ESA that us constantly under threat of revision under proposals to change the ESA. The ESA is viewed by some as too restrictive on economic growth, and too costly to private landowners, preventing them from doing what they want with their land.
There have been two previous attempts to take a look at a small sample of these consultations to decide what happens. Until now. This week Jacob Malcolm and Ya-Wei (Jake) Li from Defenders of Wildlife published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. In this paper, they aggregate over 88,000 records of consultations to ask how often consultations with the USFWS result in development projects being denied. The answer? Twice in 88,000 cases between 2008 and early 2015; essentially never.
This is big news for the conservation community because it suggests that either (a) the ESA is ineffective at stopping development that harms endangered species; (b) agencies have learned what does and does not pass muster and hence refrains from asking when the answer will be ‘no.’ I would like to think that the latter is the correct interpretation. However, previous constrained attempts to analyze section 7 consultations found more declinations of permission ~1980 and early 2000’s. Hence, there isn’t compelling evidence that the ESA ever did shut down development through consultation.
Perhaps this is not a surprise.
The paper by Malcolm and Li (Data contradict common perceptions about a controversial provision of the US Endangered Species Act, PNAS ) is a fantastic read. My favorite paper of the year. Check it out.
And, while on the topic, The Ecological Society of America is releasing their 20th Issues in Ecology on January 4th. The topic? The Endangered Species Act! Dan Evans and 17 others (including both Lake Li and myself) author this synthetic view of what is and isn’t working about the ESA. Given the stature that the ESA has among biodiversity laws, globally, and the imminent suite of listing decisions that the USFWS is legally compelled to make (Can’t find the exact number but it is several hundred species by 2017, I think), it is important to stay in tune with what the scientific community collectively thinks is functioning properly versus not about this flagship biodiversity law.
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