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Claim that 99% of Species Are Saved by ESA Not Supported by Data

An urgent fundraising appeal from The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) “Global Policy Lead[er]” warns of congressional and administration efforts to change—and from the perspective of many—improve implementation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). As a recent Competitive Enterprise Institute analysis demonstrates, the overall costs of the federal ESA program are easily in the tens and more likely hundreds of billions of dollars, begging the question, are we getting what we pay for? Campaigners for the current law like TNC skip over such information and make nice-sounding claims like: “the Endangered Species Act is one of our nation’s most effective environmental laws. 99% of the species it's protected have been saved from extinction!”

Those who oppose any ESA improvements repeat this claim relentlessly. After nearly a half century it is reasonable to ask if the ESA is effective at recovering species and if the 99% claim-well-founded. Unfortunately, the answer to both is no.

Adding a species to the federal list is just the beginning of the ESA process. If all goes well, the species is supposed to be recovered and then taken off the list (i.e., delisted). Unfortunately, as of the most recent count there are over 1,660 listed domestic endangered or threatened species and only about 80 that have been delisted. Of the 80, about half were officially removed because the data originally used to justify listing was wrong, the “species” turned out to be invalid or because the species is now believed to be extinct. This leaves about 40 delisted species that officially “recovered.” Unfortunately, when these “recovered” species are examined, it is clear that about half were really just more mistakes. For example, a plant called Hoover’s whoolly-star was proclaimed to have recovered. In reality, after this plant was added to the list well over 100,000,000 were discovered. If that is not a mistake, then mistakes don’t exist.

With this lackluster record, those blindly opposed to improving the ESA have been pushing the 99%-saved claim. It may be the best they can do given the number of times a species has really recovered—the ESA’s ultimate goal, which is even rarer than most federally listed species. While the 99% claim sounds good, when examined, it falls apart just like half of the recovered species.

For starters, the claim is built on the assumption that if a species is on the federal list and it is not extinct it is because the ESA “saved’’ the species. This is a bad assumption that assigns causation without supporting data.

By law, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) reports to Congress every two years on the ESA recovery program and the status of listed species. In numerous consecutive reports, FWS has assigned a “status” to each species, designating each as either “presumed extinct,” “declining,” “stable,” “improving,” or “unknown.” In a recent report FWS added a little-used category of “captivity” for species only held in captivity and differentiated between those “presumed extinct” and those presumed extirpated in the U.S. but extant outside the U.S. Only about 1% of species have been assigned the “extinct” value and hence the 99%-saved claim.

The most recent such data provided by FWS indicated that of 1,141 species covered by the report about 43% were stable or improving while 26% were “declining.” The agency did not actually bother to tally the percent in each category for this report but just presented a big, discouraging blob of data. However, because a value like “declining” in any single report is just a snapshot in time, it does not tell us too much. Has the rate of decline slowed? Is it the same or even worse than when the species was first listed? Has the ESA had any measurable impact at all?

On the basis of snapshot in one year we cannot assume that putting these species on the list has somehow changed things so significantly as to have “saved” them. The same can be said of almost one in four species that are of “unknown” status. The reality is that these species cannot be assumed to have been “saved.”

Analyzing years of this data could perhaps indicate some relationship between how long a species has been on the list and its assigned status. Yet, rather inexplicably, after its fiscal year 2009–2010 report FWS just quit reporting this status data all-together and now reports mostly fluff. Before doing so, however, FWS included this data in one last report, indicating that about 12% of species were “improving.” This assertion is rather hard to believe as in the three preceding reports improving species accounted for a bit more than half of that, 6-8%. In the immediately preceding report—just two years before FWS reported about 160 improving species—only around 90 species were improving. That would be a huge improvement. All of this begs the question: why would an agency cease reporting legally required data—data that was part of a data set stretching back a couple decades—data that, if accurate, effectively showed its most high profile program was saving species? Clearly, if the data were reliable, it wouldn’t.

Another big problem with the 99%-saved claim is that dozens of federally endangered species are, in fact, not really endangered and never were. Like Hoover’s woolly-star, they were misdiagnosed and should never have been on the federal list, yet still languish there. Proclaiming that these species have somehow been “saved” is like a doctor claiming he has cured a patient after discovering his terminal diagnosis was flat wrong.

For example, the regulation listing a plant called the running buffalo clover stated that it was “one the rarest members of North American flora” and that as few as four individual plants within a single population in a single state were all that remained. After listing, many more were discovered—116 populations in 83 counties in seven states. While numbers fluctuate with factors such as weather, just one of these discovered populations has numbered as high as 77,800 plants. The list is replete with similar examples of other misdiagnosed plants, birds, reptiles, insects, arachnids, and snails. A number of species assigned “improving” or “stable” status were, like Hoover’s woolly star, found to be more common, have a wider distribution, or face less serious threats.

Unfortunately, the claim that the ESA has saved 99% of species has nothing to do with science and those making it are either blindly repeating it or, worse, don’t really care.

Given federal and state expenditures and the regulatory burden and economic impact, we deserve better and, at the very least, simple honesty. Clearly, recovering many species may be a real challenge and take a while. It is also clear that many of the species mistakenly added to the list were added long ago. Misleading everyone, however, neither helps nor fixes the ESA’s real shortcomings. With the ESA’s ultimate costs in the tens if not hundreds billions, people should be demanding reform. The good news is, if we recognize these problems, we can likely do a lot better and do it for a lot less.