What happens when Congress doesn’t adequately fund recovery for endangered species? This.
The figure shows the declining percentage of species listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that have recovery plans. It’s one of several troubling pictures from a recent paper that the one-and-only Jacob Malcom and I published in Conservation Letters last week, titled Missing, Delayed, and Old: The Status of ESA Recovery Plans.
The paper examines some of the most basic questions about ESA recovery planning, including which species have recovery plans and the age of those plans. The answers are troubling. Among species eligible for recovery plans, nearly 25% still don’t have final plans and the median age of plans is 22.8 years. In fact, 10% of plans are over 31.7 years old! You can bet that many of these older plans are practically useless today, considering how much our knowledge of species and the strategies for recovering them have advanced since the 1980s. Here’s the full distribution of recovery plan age.
We also examined the time between when a species is listed and when it gets a final recovery plan. The federal government’s goal is 2.5 years, but we found a median time of 5.1 years and a mean of 7 years. Here’s the distribution, with nearly 20% of species taking 10 or more years.
With these and other barriers to recovering species, it’s little wonder that only a small fraction of listed species have recovered and that probably half of those species are in long-term decline.
More funding from Congress would certainly help the situation, but that funding is unlikely come anytime soon. Even if it arrives, the amount is unlikely to be enough to fix the recovery planning backlog. So faster and cheaper approaches to recovery planning are sorely needed. Fortunately, those approaches are starting to appear. Web-based recovery plans, for example, will make updating recovery plans much easier, and efforts to improve how the federal government allocates its recovery budget could allow many more species to benefit from the same amount of funding. Other opportunities include engaging state wildlife agencies in helping to draft recovery plans and making better use of recovery outlines–“mini recovery plans” that can guide recovery for many species for many years, while a full-blown recovery plan is developed. The recovery outline for the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse allowed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service to begin conserving the species soon after it was listed, without waiting five or more years for a recovery plan. I think similar approaches could expedite conservation for many other species. Those and other innovations are needed to improve the ESA’s record of recovering species.