Researchers just proved that attacks on the Endangered Species Act are not based on reality

  • Defenders of Wildlife President and CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark called riders attached to a recent spending bill proposed by Congress “one of the worst congressional attacks we’ve ever seen on endangered wildlife.”

  • A new analysis from Defenders of Wildlife published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that, in reality, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FSW), which is tasked with assessing the impacts of economic development projects on endangered wildlife, can hardly be said to be pursuing its charge overzealously.

  • Since 2008, “not one out of over 88,000 projects was stopped because of the FWS finding that a project would threaten a species’ survival.”

Though it would reportedly end the United States’ decades-old oil export ban, an omnibus funding bill passed by the US Congress today also contains some victories for environmental conservation.

Several anti-Endangered Species Act riders, which would have blocked the listing of a number of imperiled species and removed existing protections for several others, including gray wolves, were defeated.

Defenders of Wildlife President and CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark called the riders “one of the worst congressional attacks we’ve ever seen on endangered wildlife” in celebrating their demise.

The Endangered Species Act has long been a target of business-friendly members of Congress because of the undue burden it allegedly places on enterprises that put any of the nearly 1,600 endangered or threatened species in the US at further risk.

But a new analysis from Defenders of Wildlife published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that, in reality, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FSW), which is tasked with assessing the impacts of economic development projects on endangered wildlife, can hardly be said to be pursuing its charge overzealously.

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Gray wolf in the US. Photo by Rhett Butler.

Since 2008, “not one out of over 88,000 projects was stopped because of the FWS finding that a project would threaten a species’ survival,” according to a statement Defenders of Wildlife released about the report.

The past seven years are something of a departure from the past, when it was more common for the FWS to find that proposed projects jeopardized a species.

“But even back then, the vast majority of projects — 99.9% — still proceeded ultimately with only limited modifications, again dispelling the myth that the Endangered Species Act blocks projects and kills jobs across the country,” Ya-Wei Li, Senior Director of Endangered Species Conservation for Defenders of Wildlife and a co-author of the report, said in a statement.

Li and team looked at how the FWS was handling Section 7 consultations, which is considered one of the most important if controversial protection mechanisms in the Endangered Species Act.

Section 7 requires all federal agencies to consult with the FWS or the National Marine Fisheries Service on any project they carry out themselves, give money to or authorize in order to make certain they don’t “jeopardize” a species or “destroy or adversely modify” critical habitat for an endangered species.

Because these prohibitions are written rather broadly, they are both Section 7’s greatest strength and it’s greatest weakness, so to speak. It’s precisely because they’re broad that they’re considered a key tool for protecting species, while they’ve also made Section 7 a focal point of accusations that the Endangered Species Act impedes business operations.

Li and his co-authors write in the report that this decades-old controversy is “driven primarily by the lack of data on implementation.” They analyzed all 88,290 consultations recorded by the FWS between January 2008 and April 2015 and found that no project was stopped or extensively altered as a result of a Section 7 consultation. They also found that the median consultation time was far less than the maximum allowed.

“The Endangered Species Act includes a basic, common sense, look-before-you-leap requirement: federal agencies must consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that their proposed actions won’t threaten a listed species’ survival,” Li said.

“While our findings should lay to rest the unfounded claims by ESA-opponents that the act is destroying jobs and the economy, the study raises significant questions as to why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has virtually ceased finding that any projects threaten a species’ survival.”

CITATION

  • Li, W., Malcolm, J. (2015). Data contradict common perceptions about a controversial provision of the US Endangered Species Act. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1516938112
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