Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge, © James Weliver/USFWS

Saving Common Cents

Ya-Wei Li, Endangered Species Policy Analyst

The federal government never has enough money to protect endangered species. But what if it could accomplish a lot more with the money it already receives? As Defenders’ policy analyst for endangered species conservation, I am always excited to find these gold nuggets in our work to improve the Endangered Species Act. We are helping the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) find ways to save money when it protects habitat for endangered species so that the leftover funds can go to protecting more wildlife and their habitats — all without an extra penny from taxpayers. After all, it is your money and mine that pays for these programs, so we want them to run efficiently.

Critical habitat

Credit: Karl Horton

For most critters protected by the Endangered Species Act, the Fish & Wildlife Service is required to designate and protect their critical habitat, which are areas essential to conserving the species. In doing so, the USFWS also has to consider the possible costs to the public. For example, if beach dunes are protected as critical habitat, developers would — thankfully, — find it more difficult, or even impossible, to get a permit to build a hotel there. The USFWS factors this loss of potential profits to developers into its critical habitat designations. If they believe the cost of protecting the habitat is too high, they can decide not to designate the area a critical habitat. A species’ survival can hinge on the process for calculating those potential costs, so it is important that the system works well, and that someone is making sure that the numbers are being run not just on behalf of developers and industries, but also wildlife.

Currently, the USFWS spends, on average, about $150,000 to estimate the costs for each critical habitat designation. The price is very high because the USFWS usually pays a private firm to complete the estimate, and the estimate goes beyond what is required under the ESA. For example, the 180-page estimate for polar bear critical habitat evaluates the probable economic impacts of not only the critical habitat, but also the listing decision, which occurred two years ago. That is a little like calculating the cost of a trip you took by adding the cost of buying your car to the cost of the gas you used to get there.

Another problem is that the current method often overestimates the costs of protection and underestimates the benefits, since the USFWS lacks an effective method for calculating the economic benefits of protecting land as critical habitat. Most of their effort is put into finding out how much the local economy stands to lose with a critical habitat designation, but not what they stand to gain.

Cape Sable Sparrow

The endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow (Credit: David LaPuma)

We believe there is a better way to get the job done. One simple improvement is for the USFWS to evaluate just the cost of the critical habitat designation (not the listing). This would still provide enough information to make a fair decision, but could save about $100,000 per designation. In the grand scheme of government funds, that may not sound like a lot of money — at least, not at first. But with an additional $100,000 each year, the USFWS could have doubled what it spent in 2011 on species such as the wood bison and the Cape Sable seaside sparrow. That money could help pay for programs and support that struggling species need, such as fire management programs that improve habitat for the sparrow by removing certain kinds of invasive plants.

The other point to consider is the large number of critical habitat designations. Every year under the Obama administration, the USFWS has designated critical habitat for several dozen species. This year alone, it has proposed or finalized critical habitat for over 100 species. This is great news for those species, which are in urgent need of protected habitat. But using the current method, it amounts to a lot of money spent. If the USFWS had saved $100,000 on only half (50) of those critical habitat decisions, that still amounts to $5 million in savings!

That is just in one year. Now imagine projecting these savings into the future. The USFWS is usually required to designate critical habitat whenever it lists a species. In the next year alone, we expect them to list 97 species. In the next six years, they are likely to list an additional 150 or more species. So if only 75 percent of these 247 species are listed and receive critical habitat, a savings of $100,000 per species adds up to $18.5 million!

With savings like these within reach, we decided to weigh in on this process. Recently, we reached out to the USFWS through a comment letter with recommendations on how they could begin saving money by taking other approaches to designating critical habitats. The money saved could eventually help pay for recovery actions for many endangered species, including manatees in Florida, jaguars in Arizona, and desert tortoises in California. Hopefully the USFWS takes some of our advice, or at the very least, takes a good long look at the way they currently designate critical habitat. In the meantime, we will continue to lead efforts to improve the ways endangered species are protected, making processes more effective and efficient so that more money becomes available for the on-the-ground conservation work that can bring these species back from the brink.