Where the (ESA-listed) Wild Things Are
Do you ever wonder where southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis; threatened) live? Or which threatened and endangered species live in your neck of the woods (or plains or desert)? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service makes this information available through their ECOS website, but it can be cumbersome to find. And beyond state-level summaries, there isn’t really a way to look at the big picture of the geography of Endangered Species Act-listed (ESA-listed) species. Having this information readily available can be extremely helpful when deciding how to best protect and recover these species.
Part of our work at the Center for Conservation Innovation is simply about making data more accessible and useful. We regularly need to know where ESA-listed plants and animals live, so we have written small computer programs that visit ECOS each night to see if any new geographic (or other) information is available. While the data is relatively simple- a table of species with the counties and states where they live — when we gather, organize and make this information available, it can help us answer many fundamental questions.
How we make the data available depends on our needs and the needs of people who use our tools. Sometimes all we need is the ability to quickly get a list of species, counties or states, and an app that is no more than a basic table is sufficient. For example, the other day we wanted to find which ESA-listed species were in counties around certain national parks. Rather than looking through 1,600 species’ pages on ECOS to figure out which species live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we filtered the table for counties like Swain and Haywood in North Carolina (plus others) to get a quick list.
Other times we want to be able to summarize patterns in ESA-listed species geography, and presenting data in a graphical format is helpful. We have a small web application that provides basic information about ESA-listed species in graphs, charts and maps. You can readily see that most listed species are actually plants (followed by fish and mollusks). And that over half of listed species live in only one county. Displaying the county table data in a map lets users find ‘hot-spots’ — places where lots of listed species live.
In addition to being of general interest there are many other ways the geography of ESA-listed species is important. For example, knowing where listed plants and animals live is critical to careful planning to avoid or minimize harm to individuals of listed species. Knowing where they live, or used to live, is also essential to planning for species’ recovery. And it’s worth considering how the tools we use to conserve species should vary across the country. Private lands dominate the southeastern U.S., where there are many listed fish, mussels and plants. The tools that work there — like Habitat Conservation Plans and Safe Harbor Agreements — are often different than what works in many western states with extensive public lands.
So the next time you’re thinking, “I wonder where the southern sea otter lives…” remember that the table look-up makes it really easy to find out. Do you live in Austin, Texas (Travis County) and wonder about the listed species there? Hop over to the map and click around to find out. To conserve and recover ESA-listed species, having information about where species live and what they need is important. And we have to be able to use that information to make sound decisions. By making geographic ESA data accessible, interactive and intuitive, the Center for Conservation Innovation is helping ensure people working on ESA issues have the information they need and that every day citizens like you who are curious have a place to educate themselves easily.