America is the planet’s most successful wildlife emergency room.

Many countries don’t yet have even one victory under their wildlife recovery programs.  In contrast, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and state efforts have taken the bald eagle, gray wolf, alligator and more than 20 other species from the edge of oblivion to security.  In the next two years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has announced its plan to recognize 17 more recoveries or species meriting a lower ‘threatened’ status. 

Hitting recovery goals for a few dozen species is good, but not good enough.  What would it take to achieve 100 recoveries in the next 10 years?

First, progress is happening faster than it may appear.  Approximately 400-500 species are generally stable or moving in the right direction.   Some would take off even faster with new management efforts.

Yet that management has a price.  The inflation-adjusted median cost of recovery is about $190,000 per year.  So extra spending of $19 million per year (20 percent more than current appropriations) would fully fund 100 recovery programs.  Much of this could come from existing budgets.  For example, in 2007, the Bureau of Land Management’s endangered species program took smart steps to shift resources to species with strong recovery potential.  Having now succeeded with the easiest species, BLM’s next successes will only be possible if their investment is matched by redirected U.S. Forest Service and Land and Water Conservation Fund support to places where species require all three programs to thrive. 

Wiser USFWS-led reallocation of current endangered species funding among species is just as important.  Largely because of Congressional pressure, most past funding went to extremely expensive and difficult to recover species that are popular or controversial.  In 2011, just three percent of species received half of all spending.  In contrast, the best opportunities are places where state and federal managers and private landowners know what to do and action is relatively cheap:  Hawaii’s rainforests, Alabama and Tennessee’s streams and Arizona’s deserts.  A shift of just 10 percent of the money from the top 35 best-funded species to these hotspots could kick-start hundreds of recoveries.

Better use of science is another opportunity.  Too often, agencies delay recovery planning decisions waiting for new information and require multi-year studies by permit applicants when the standard in the law is “best available science.”  The ESA would operate far faster if decisions were made based on available information.  Doing so requires stronger monitoring commitments and transparency so that both recovery commitments and compensatory mitigation for development projects can change and adapt as new science shows whether projects are working or not.  Setting clear measurable thresholds to reinitiate consultation in a biological opinion would make that possible.      

Finally, states’ public trust for wildlife conservation is as strong as the federal one, and many private landowners are fantastic land stewards.  However, current federal practice is not designed with an assumption those partners can be trusted to manage recovery.  Instead partners are forced to negotiate labyrinthine agreements in exchange for even modest responsibilities and assurances.  One promising tool to change that is called a Recovery Management Agreement (RMA).  RMAs are documents that allow one or more partners to take clear responsibility for species’ management in ways that meet the ESA’s requirement for adequate regulatory mechanisms.   For example, Mississippi’s gopher tortoise recovery plan requires 22,000 tortoises maintained for 30 years before delisting could be considered.  Once the population gets to 22,000 why wait 30 years if risks can be managed a different way?  An RMA would secure long-term commitments from the Forest Service and state, allowing an earlier delisting.  In particular, states can take over management of species that hit their benchmarks.  This is partly because a decade of Congressional funding for the State Wildlife Grant program funding has given today’s state wildlife agencies expert staff whose skills and training match those in federal agencies. 

Such approaches could allow America to triple our species conservation success rate and halve the time to achieve it.  All are possible within the scope of existing authority in the ESA or the budget process. 

However, agencies are currently listing about 300 every ten years, a pace that many scientists believe is too slow.  An even bolder plan would be to imagine what it would take to hit the tipping point where recoveries are happening faster than species are being listed.  Perhaps that seems impossible, but if we don’t even try to develop policies to meet that challenge how will we know?   The real need for new endangered species legislation arises if we want to hit that goal. 

Male directs Mission:Wildlife, a new organization helping develop innovative endangered species policies that better serve wildlife, communities and business.