Last week, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) turned over management of the Yellowstone grizzly to state officials in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. It was the first day for the grizzly off the endangered species list. With around 700 bears in the area, the FWS considered them recovered and no longer in need of the Endangered Species Act's protection, although state officials will maintain many of the same protections and the FWS will step in if the bear's population declines.
Unfortunately, inherent problems with the law's design make successes rare. The grizzly’s no-longer-endangered status is one of the few victories the ESA can trumpet. The Act’s track record makes it clear that the ESA needs reform to better protect species from extinction. Yet one promising idea isn’t being considered: doing more with existing funding.
One issue that prevents the ESA from helping other species is how it allocates spending on different animals or plants. Too much is spent on some species for which few gains can be made, while species that could be helped go underfunded. For example, the Northern Spotted Owl has received about $4.5 million dollars between 1989 and 2011 — $2.5 million more than its recommended budget — yet its population has declined. If conservationists really want to save species from extinction, they should support spending reforms.
Many conservationists believe that the ESA’s ultimate goal should be helping species get out from under ESA’s protections. But since the ESA’s beginning 44 years ago, only 34 of the 2,245 species ever listed have been delisted due to population recovery — that's about 1.5 percent. It’s hardly an encouraging success rate.
Environmentalists face two harsh realities with regards to reforming the ESA. First, the available resources for savings species are limited. Given President Trump’s proposed budget and the current political landscape, increased funding is unlikely to come from the federal government. Second, there may be species for which recovery is simply impossible. While these species may be preserved by ESA-related spending, money spent on them can’t be spent on other species that could have their populations brought back up to safe levels. Allocating funding is an issue of odds.
Right now the FWS isn’t doing a good job of playing those odds. Whether or not more funding is needed, research suggests money isn’t being spent wisely. A 2016 analysis by Leah R. Gerber, an environmental scientist and professor at Arizona State University, found that changing the prioritization system the FWS uses could improve recovery outcomes. Basically, it’s possible for the FWS to do more with what it already has.
Gerber’s work builds on similar methods that have already been successfully implemented in Australia and New Zealand as well as by environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy. Gerber’s system ranks species on a variety of factors including their likelihood to be protected and improved until they no longer need protection under the ESA. The idea is to ensure that the FWS is getting the most bang for its buck.
One of the most exasperating discoveries in Gerber’s analysis is that the FWS is spending more on some species than the recovery plans created under the ESA even call for. Gerber’s research shows that simply eliminating the excess spending on “costly yet futile” species, i.e., those that are unlikely to recover, i.e., will make up for the deficit in spending on over 180 other species that are currently underfunded. In the case of the charismatic Hawaiian Monk Seal, for example, Gerber glumly concludes, “There’s just no way to save them.” Though it’s disappointing to hear the cute and cuddly animals may lose funding, there has long been evidence that biologically important species are ignored in favor of those that are more appealing to humans. The Ugly Animal Preservation Society, for example, champions what some have called “aesthetically challenged creatures” to draw attention to those neglected species.
Of course, some animals, such as pandas and koala bears, are beloved by enough people that they might be worth continuing to spend money on, even with little hope of raising their population levels. But the fact is that limited funds make this choice unrealistic in the case of many other species.
Fortunately, Gerber has been working with the FWS to develop a decision-making framework since 2015. In May, she met with the FWS, which is taking her research seriously in an effort to improve its own processes. Since an increased budget for the FWS is politically impossible, we must ensure that current funding is spent to its full effect. The spending reforms that conservationists like Gerber champion are a great starting point for saving more species.
Josh T. Smith is a Master’s student in economics at Utah State University and works as a policy analyst for Strata, a public policy research center based in Logan, Utah.