Walruses, © Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Stock

When Going Broke Can Mean Going Extinct

Mary Beth Beetham, Director of Legislative Affairs

You’ve probably heard a lot lately about the upcoming fiscal cliff — draconian automatic funding cuts to federal programs that will harm America’s wildlife and habitats, scheduled to take effect in early January in the absence of a larger budget agreement. But whether these automatic cuts occur or not, the shrinking federal budget will ensure that funding for wildlife and habitat conservation will continue to be in a precarious state for at least the next several years.

Bald eagles are one of many species that owe their recovery to the Endangered Species Act and the USFWS Endangered Species Program (Credit: Wes Gibson)

It’s my job to go to Capitol Hill and make the case for wildlife conservation funding — but it is more important than ever that you lend your help as well. Representatives and Senators need to hear from you, their constituents, that these programs are important and worth funding. To help you understand what’s at stake here, we’re going to spend some time each week explaining what these programs do to uphold our nation’s wildlife laws and protect endangered species, migratory birds and other key animals and habitats. Today, we’re focusing on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Endangered Species Program.

The Endangered Species Act, one of the most visionary conservation laws ever passed, is our nation’s cornerstone of wildlife conservation. For nearly 40 years, it has been tremendously successful in preventing the extinction of our wildlife treasures, including bald eagles, California condors, Florida panthers, gray wolves, grizzly bears and manatees — all achieved despite severe and chronic funding shortfalls.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is one of two federal agencies responsible for implementing the Endangered Species Act, and it has jurisdiction over the lion’s share of the more than 1,400 protected U.S. plants and animals. The Service’s program is divided into four smaller programs that follow the different sections of the law: 1) Listing; 2) Candidate Conservation; 3) Recovery; and 4) Consultation.

Protecting New Species
First, FWS biologists and other staff analyze the best scientific information to identify species that may be in need of protection. Listing a species is a rigorous procedure. The FWS must develop, propose and finalize regulations that include information on the species population, range, habitat needs, evaluation of threats, examples of conservation efforts, and actions that may be prohibited if listing occurs. The listing process requires painstaking analysis of both scientific information and comments by the public, and can often take several years. Then, once a species is listed, the FWS has to designate habitat critical to the species’ survival and recovery.

Pacific Walrus candidate species

The Pacific walrus is one of nearly 200 candidate species waiting for full Endangered Species Act protections (Credit: Joel Garlich-Miller)

Safeguarding Unprotected Species
If a plant or an animal faces severe enough threats to justify listing, but the FWS lacks funding to list the species immediately, it becomes a candidate species. While candidates await protection, Service personnel work with partners on the ground to put conservation measures in place and remove threats to these species. There are currently 193 candidate species, including the American wolverine, red knot, Pacific fisher, Pacific walrus, mountain yellow-legged frog, yellow-billed loon, New Mexico meadow jumping mouse and the lesser prairie chicken. Because FWS funding for listing is already inadequate, many candidates have been awaiting listing for years.

Helping Declining or Protected Species
Once a species is under the Act’s protection, it moves into the Recovery program, where Service staff develop and implement a plan to stop the species decline, and bring it back to the point where it can survive on its own. Developing a sound recovery plan can be another painstaking process, and involves working with scientists and stakeholders to spell out the research and management actions necessary for recovery. Once the plan is finished (and even while it is being developed), FWS leads the efforts to actually carry out the required activities on the ground, working with private landowners, state, local and other federal agencies, tribes and other partners. This part of the program includes efforts like:

  • Restoring Florida panther habitat
  • Monitoring and taking inventories of Canada lynx
  • Installing wildlife crossings for ocelots in Texas
  • Marking and maintaining boat speed zones for manatees
  • Captive breeding and reintroduction of black-footed ferrets
Black footed ferret USFWS

As part of their recovery program, the USFWS has reintroduced endangered black-footed ferrets into their native habitat. (Credit: Ryan Moehring/USFWS)

Reducing Harm to Listed Species
While a species is protected, FWS staff works under the Consultation program to make sure outside projects don’t significantly harm protected species. There are literally tens of thousands of projects every year in all parts of the country that require consultation to reduce harm to endangered species, creating a crushing workload for agency personnel. This part of the program does things like:

  • Work with the Coast Guard to reduce harm to manatees and sea turtles during events like regattas, boat races and fishing tournaments
  • Work with the Army Corps of Engineers and other entities to reduce harm to the pallid sturgeon from navigation operations on the Upper Mississippi River
  • Work with the Department of Defense to reduce harm to more than 100 species in Hawaii and the Pacific Islands from expanded use of larger munitions
  • Work with the Bureau of Land Management, renewable energy companies and others so that wind turbines, solar arrays, and transmission lines can be sited and built while reducing harm to species like bats, golden eagles, whooping cranes and desert tortoise

All these pieces of the Endangered Species Program are vital to prevent the extinction of dozens of species, and to encourage the recovery of hundreds more. Further cuts to the program’s budget will delay or stop listing of species, undermine work to identify and conserve candidates and recover listed species, and slow or stop consultation, which would lead to a delay in projects and greater controversy surrounding the Endangered Species Act.

Keeping federal conservation laws and programs strong is essential to much of the work that Defenders does to protect wildlife and habitat. But these federal efforts are often only as good as the funding that supports them. The animals that benefit from these programs have no voice in politics. To prevent these cuts and keep these programs running, we have to take the message to Congress ourselves. Please, contact your elected officials and speak out on behalf of wildlife.