Federal Neglect Drove 114 U.S. Species to Extinction

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, April 22, 2004 (ENS) - The failure of the federal government to effectively implement the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has contributed to the extinction of at least 114 species since the law was passed in 1973, says a report released Wednesday by the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy organization based in Arizona. "If extinction is the ultimate criteria by which to judge agency implementation of the ESA, the failure has been spectacular," the report finds. "In many cases it has been purposeful."

The study identifies all species that became extinct or missing in the first 20 years since the Endangered Species Act took effect. Researchers found that some 77 percent of those species were known to be endangered but never granted protection under the law.

"Virtually all of these species could have been saved if the Endangered Species Act was properly managed, fully funded and shielded from political pressure," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity and one of three authors of the paper. "Instead they were sacrificed to bureaucratic inertia, political meddling, and lack of leadership."

The Endangered Species Act was signed by President Richard Nixon on December 28, 1973 after it passed the House by a vote of 355 to 4 and the Senate by 92 to 0.

The law requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with the National Marine Fisheries Service, to list animal and plant species that are endangered or threatened, designate critical habitat for them, and develop species recovery plans. whiteeye

The last known Marianna mallard died in captivity in 1981. (Photo by Eugene Kridler courtesy FWS)
Many conservationists consider the law a resounding success. Some 1,250 species are afforded protection by the Endangered Species Act and it has helped save species such as the gray wolf, the American bald eagle and the California sea otter.

But the law is only as good as its implementation, the report's authors say, and a close examination reveals that many species are now extinct due a lack of federal government commitment and attention.

"Reviewers of the ESA listing program, including the U.S. General Accounting Office, the Department of Interior Inspector General, the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. Congress and scientists both inside and outside the agency have repeatedly pointed out that the program has been hampered by underfunding, political intervention and lack of leadership," according to the report.

The report finds 92 species became extinct with no Endangered Species Act protection. The majority of those disappeared because of the lack of legal protection, recovery plans, critical habitat, and recovery funding.

The greatest zones of extinction were the Pacific Islands, the Western United States, and the Southeast. The species that disappeared are flowering plants, amphibians, freshwater mussels and snails and birds.

Hawaii suffered more than half of all the extinctions. Southern tier states including California, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida ranked second highest.

Listing delays, some as long as 20 years, contributed to the extinction of 88 species, including the an Alaskan sparrow, the San Gabriel Mountains blue butterfly, and the Penasco least chipmunk.

The report says 27 species became extinct while waiting on the federal candidate and warrant review list, and 21 species disappeared while the Fish and Wildlife Service "illegally delayed processing of petitions to protect them."

The report alleges that in some cases the agency knew the delay would cause extinction, but chose not to act rather than confront powerful political interests.

"Listing delays and extinctions have plagued the Fish and Wildlife Service for 30 years," said Brian Nowicki, coauthor of the paper, "but the Bush administration has pushed the crisis to an unprecedented level."

Bush administration officials and some Congressional conservatives say the law is "broken" and in need of a major overhaul. lotis

The Lotis blue butterfly never had critical habitat designated. (Photo courtesy FWS)
The administration's polices reflect the view held by some developers and many natural resource extraction companies that the law is too rigid, is not working to keep species from becoming imperiled and is being used by environmentalists to challenge development of public lands.

The White House has eliminated the requirement that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency consult with federal wildlife agencies to determine whether pesticides will jeopardize threatened and endangered species

It has removed the obligation of land management agencies - such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management - to consult with federal wildlife biologists authorizing, funding or carrying out actions authorized under the National Fire Plan that could harm species or critical habitat protected by the law.

Last year, the administration announced that the Endangered Species Act - in particular the critical habitat provision - does little to protect endangered or threatened species and has caused a slew of lawsuits that is draining the scarce funds that are available to protect endangered species.

Internal reports by the agency find that addressing the backlog of these duties would require some $153 million. Only one third of the 1,250 species on the ESA list have designated critical habitat, and there are 259 species under consideration for listing.

But the Bush administration has only requested $17 million for this year's ESA budget, and the administration is the first in the history of the law not to have listed any species or designated any critical habitat except under court order.

It has listed 25 species since 2001 - by contrast, the Clinton administration averaged 65 species listings per year, the first Bush administration averaged 59 per year and the Reagan administration averaged 32 per year.

Recovery of listed species, the administration says, will not come through regulatory actions such as listing species and designating critical habitat, but through voluntary cooperative partnerships and incentives.

Such partnerships and incentives are important, but argue they are meaningless without the backstop of the Endangered Species Act. eskimo

Habitat loss and degradation doomed the eskimo curlew to extinction. (Photo by Eugene Kridler courtesy FWS)
The report calls on the Bush administration and Congress to fully fund the Fish and Wildlife Service's request for $153 million to list all species waiting for protection on the federal candidate list.

It also recommends the administration to immediately propose all candidate species for ESA protection and to develop a five year plan to finalize protection for them all.

There is growing evidence that conservation measures within the United States - and around the world - are failing. The world faces a wave of extinctions triggered by unfettered human growth and development, and scientists estimate the current extinction rate is 100 to 1,000 times the natural level.

A recent study by The Nature Conservancy finds that some 550 species have gone extinct in the United States in the past 200 years and 4,000 known U.S. species face the danger of extinction.

A list of the species documented by the new report can be found here.