Trying to stretch every dollar to do more with less is a familiar dilemma. Unfortunately, it’s an all too familiar one for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and other federal agencies trying to recover over 2,100 species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Given this harsh reality, it’s more important than ever that we prioritize recovery actions to give the most endangered species their best chance for survival.
Unfortunately the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service does not strictly follow its own guidelines for prioritizing recovery funding based on how threatened a species is, how likely it is to recover, and how genetically unique it is. Instead, allocations are based primarily on workload and opportunities to form partnerships and leverage funding. Is that really what’s most important? Looking at how effective it is, we would say no. Not only does this approach lack transparency, it has also resulted in the majority of funding being spent on less than 10 percent of the hundreds of listed species, and not always the ones in most desperate need of help.
The Fish & Wildlife Service should focus their efforts based primarily on clear biological priorities, instead of budget and operational factors. However, nationwide reform of these practices would be difficult, and would likely require the agency to revamp its budgeting process and operating guidance. It may be unrealistic to expect such herculean changes in the next few years. At present, the Fish & Wildlife Service simply does not have the resources to invest in creating and implementing an improved prioritization system across all of its offices. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done now. Federal agencies can begin making smarter decisions about their funding by creating new initiatives designed to focus funds on where it will make the biggest difference.
Defenders’ recent report Aiming to Succeed: Targeting funds to enhance endangered species recovery describes three such initiatives that set aside a specific pot of money for recovery actions with the best potential to produce measureable, cost-effective improvements in the status of targeted species within just a few years. These recovery funds may be applied to species on the brink of extinction, close to full recovery, or to those that might otherwise fall through the cracks.
Luckily, in some cases a little can go a long way. In the case of the Maguire daisy, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Endangered Species Recovery Fund chose this species to focus its efforts on because it knew that relatively inexpensive and simple recovery actions can be enough to recover endangered plant species. The program supported population surveys, relocation of camping grounds, and public outreach, and these actions provided the final push needed to remove the Maguire Daisy from the endangered species list. If the Bureau’s special funding initiative had not prioritized these recovery actions, then the Maguire Daisy might have remained on endangered list for many years.
Defenders applauds the work of the Fish & Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management to develop the three recovery initiatives described in Aiming to Succeed. But we also hope to see more examples like this, and are offering our expertise to help where we can. Our report makes some recommendations for future efforts to improve the methods they use to determine which endangered species to focus their efforts. One important step would be for the U.S. Department of the Interior to encourage initiatives that help these and other agencies work together for the overall benefit of endangered species. If an endangered species lives across several different kinds of federal lands (for instance, a wildlife refuge, a national forest and a BLM-managed area), then those agencies can have a much greater impact in helping to recover the species if they work together. By directing their shared resources, agencies can spur species recovery across all federal lands.
Martha Surridge, Senior Conservation Planner