If only animals could talk… but they can’t so I’m interviewing Jake

People love wildlife. Just ask any 6-year old. Our policies that are meant to help wildlife are some of the most important ones we work on in conservation. I’m thrilled to have Ya Wei Li – who goes by Jake – join the Innovation Center’s staff. He’s one of America’s top experts in endangered species law and policy. Here are my questions to Jake, and his answers.

How did you end up working on wildlife?

Snakes! As a kid growing up in New York City, my main connection to wildlife were my pet snakes, plus some turtles and fish. I had probably read every book in the Public Library on snakes, maybe twice. All of that sparked my interest in conservation. I still keep several dozen snakes today.

One fast idea that would have a big impact on restoring more endangered species?

Spreading the wealth more equally across all species. Roughly 80% of government spending goes to 5% of species, and roughly 80% of species get 5% of the money. One recent study showed that a lot is spent on species that are very difficult to recover. If we shifted much more of that money to species that are underfunded and recoverable (like many Hawaiian species), we could start improving the status of hundreds of species just like that.

Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law.  Crazy to think about that. Nixon. If you could go back to 1973 and change the law he signed, what would you fix?

That’s like asking a kid to pick only one toy from the store. Dozens of things flood to my mind. But one that’s fundamental is requiring our federal wildlife agencies to clearly define when a species gets protected. The standards for listing species, offsetting harmful effects from development, and recovering species are applied very inconsistently. Even the basic concept of “extinction” has no uniform interpretation under the ESA. This has led to a lot of frustration and controversy that could have been avoided.

Best (realistic) case scenario, where will be with endangered species conservation in the U.S. in 25 years? How many recoveries and how many extinctions?

Today, barely more than 50 species have recovered, 11 species have been declared extinct, and roughly 70 species are presumed extinct or very likely extinct. Without major changes in funding and how we administer the ESA, I’d wager that 170 species will be recovered and 130 species will likely go extinct by 2043. But with major improvements in funding and implementation, I can imagine over 300 species recovered and only 100 species going extinct.

To me, the more important question is whether, on average, all listed species are improving, stable, or declining over the next 25 years. That’s the best gauge of whether our efforts are working. The ESA is now an overcrowded, unfunded emergency room, with the doctors unable to triage victims effectively. But with a serious push for better policies and more funding, I think we can improve the status of over half of all domestic listed species.

There is a lot more biodiversity – and a lot more threat – overseas. Why is it important to work on wildlife conservation here? 

It’s important to conserve imperiled biodiversity wherever it’s found. America has an amazing array of plants and animals, many of which will blink out without our help. And getting conservation right in America can allow us to share our lessons with other countries. Having said all of that, I think it’s incredibly important for Americans to play a far larger role helping other countries protect their natural heritage. We’re lucky to have laws like the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. Most countries have nothing similar. With China’s rapidly growing footprint, working with its government, corporations, and citizens could yield tremendous gains for biodiversity globally.

Worst experience with wildlife (animal or plant)? 

I’ve had dozens of snake bites, some of which have left huge puddles of blood on the floor. But nothing compares to poison ivy—yuck!

As we implement the law, we put the same effort into saving a distinct population, a subspecies, a species, or a unique genus or family. Does that make sense? 

In an ideal world, with unlimited funding and political capital, yes that makes sense. But in this world, we lack the money to save every species, so we have to make tough choices about which ones to save. All else being equal, I value saving a monotypic genus over a distinct population. That’s the only way we’re going to conserve as much diversity as possible.

Talk about how you think ‘Big Data,’ artificial intelligence, and other emerging technologies could transform endangered species conservation?

This is one of the most exciting frontiers for conservation. There are so many ways that data science and technology can transform how we implement the Endangered Species Act and other conservation programs. For example, conservationists have already used free satellite images provided through Google Earth to find illegal habitat destruction. In fact, I did this five years ago with a very rare lizard in Texas. And as satellite images become higher quality, our ability to monitor habitat on the cheap will improve exponentially.

Data science can also help us identify the best ways to conserve many endangered species. There are at least two ways that can happen. First, our wildlife agencies are flooded with monitoring reports and other data collected on many species. But they lack the resources to analyze all of that data, so the data often sit in filing cabinets and CD-ROMs that no one opens. Artificial intelligence can allow us to very quickly analyze that data for patterns and other useful knowledge. With that information, we can make far better decisions about mitigation, recovery, listing, and funding. The medical field has already undergone this change with digitizing patient records, which led to better, more individualized treatment options.

Second, for many endangered species, we lack even the most basic information on where they occur and how to conserve them. This is where the public can help fill in information gaps using their mobile phones and other technologies. iNaturalist, eBird, and HerpMapper are great examples of this approach. And I haven’t even touched on the potential for drones!

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