The Cost of Underfunding

ESA Recovery Plans Edition

The Endangered Species Act was passed into law in 1973 as a bipartisan statement on America’s commitment to protecting species from extinction. Almost all of the species listed under the ESA are still with us today and dozens have been formally recovered, both of which are testament to the law’s strengths. This might even be surprising when you consider that Congress has funded the ESA at less than 25% of what scientists say is needed to recover species. The long-term, chronic underfunding of the ESA has to have negative consequences for conserving the species most in need of protection, but what does that look like for the species?

Science is key to Defenders of Wildlife and to the work of the Center for Conservation Innovation, and not just reviewing science to inform our advocacy, but conducting research. We were interested in the consequences of underfunding the ESA on recovery plans, which are documents that lay out the threats to species, the actions needed to address the threats, and more. In other words, these are critical documents to guiding how we conserve species. We wrote a couple of computer programs to collect all of the recovery plans from the Fish and Wildlife Service’s and National Marine Fisheries Service’s websites, then analyzed the data to figure out many species have final recovery plans, how old the plans are, and where there might be systematic differences among species and regions of the United States.

As you would expect given the long-term underfunding of the ESA, the news isn’t good. In a paper we published in the journal Conservation Letters, we show:

  • ¼ of ESA-listed species that are eligible for a recovery plan don’t have a plan;
  • the median age of plans is 22 years old; and
  • there is a lot of variation in the age and completeness of plans for different groups of species, or species in different areas.

What does this mean for species? First, it means that nearly 400 species, including species like the frosted flatwoods salamander, Poweshiek skipperling, and ringed seals, don’t have a “handbook” to help everyone understand how to get from the edge of extinction to full recovery. It means that species like the indigo snake, whose recovery plan was written in 1982 — when the threats to the species were very different from today — don’t have up-to-date information to help improve decision-making. And it means that some species are more likely to get plans because they happen to be birds (87.6% of birds have plans, perhaps because of our attraction to them), or less likely to get a plan simply because they are amphibians (62.9%, perhaps because they are less well-known). Each of these points highlight the problems that arise as Congress has failed to fulfill its duty to fund the ESA.

Poweshiek skipperling (left) and ringed seal (right)

What can be done? We have several suggestions. Some are policy revisions that can help improve the workflow and information availability of recovery planning. The Center for Conservation Innovation is collaborating with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Defense on a pilot project to make key components of recovery plans web-based so they can stay up-to-date. But most importantly, Congress needs to step up to the plate and provide the funding that can fulfill the promise we made as a nation to threatened and endangered species nearly 50 years ago.