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Does Species Triage Make Sense for the Fish and Wildlife Service?

Climate Justice

This post is the first of a pair focused on the challenges facing the Endangered Species Act and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the 21st century. You can read the second post here.

Imagine yourself in a sinking ship. The water is rising quickly. Around you are 20 unique, precious artifacts, among the last of their kind to exist on Earth. You only have the capacity to rescue 10 pounds of these objects – if you try to take on more weight, you’ll all go down. The problem is, one object alone weighs 10 pounds, while the other 19 amount to a total of 10 pounds. Do you save the big, beautiful, and majestic 10-pounder? Or do you scoop up the other 19, leaving the single large item to fall into the abyss, never to be seen again? 

Now, imagine the pounds are dollars and the artifacts are endangered species. Essentially, this is the problem facing species under threat of extinction hoping to be thrown a life raft that is Endangered Species Act (ESA) funding. With meager resources and a list of species beyond our ability to save, decision-makers are constantly faced with the difficult decision of where to allocate limited resources. So, then, how are these decisions to be made? 

Historically and currently, the answers provided have been fairly ad hoc in nature. A 2005 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) approach found that species that receive the bulk of ESA funding are often not systematically prioritized. The only direction provided to FWS comes from 1983 guidance that identifies both the degree of threat and the recovery potential of the species. The GAO report, which examined how FWS spent its money from 2000 to 2003, found that outsized levels of funding were funneled toward charismatic megafauna such as the bald eagle and Canada lynx, species that already had a low degree of threat and a high recovery potential. In addition, species that have a member of Congress lobbying on their behalf in appropriations committees may also receive funding inconsistent with the 1983 guidance on prioritization. 

Does the quarter-century old FWS guidance for assessing degree of threat and recovery potential still make sense in a physical environment subject to climate change impacts and reduced funding? Recent approaches by analogous agencies in Australia and New Zealand have offered a new path forward. This so-called species triage approach, introduced by Australia’s Hugh Possingham and recently advocated by Arizona State University Professor Leah Gerber, may be getting traction within FWS if their recent collaboration with her provides any indication. 

Species triage focuses on placing a greater emphasis on recovery potential, with the implicit conclusion that significant dollars should not be spent on efforts to save species that are so imperiled that any effort would be deemed “futile.” In other words, FWS should have a system in place that allocates resources to those species that can benefit the most from funding, i.e. their recovery potential is high. This would mean that FWS would have a more transparent, regulated approach for determining which “priceless artifacts” to save from the sinking ship. In this sense, species triage would help to address the inconsistencies found in the GAO report, as well as help to eliminate the disproportionate spending going to charismatic species or congressional pet projects. 

Although controversial within the environmental community, difficult decisions about species listing and funding have been a mainstay since the introduction of the ESA in 1973. And we will continue to have to make difficult and uncomfortable decisions as long as there are more species in need of protection than we are capable of protecting. Updating the 1983 guidance is long overdue, and addressing the consistent budget shortfall (providing enough money for all listed species would total $76 billion annually) through a species triage approach has the potential to be more workable by putting scarce dollars in the places where they are needed most in a systematic and accountable way. 

This novel approach should not be dismissed outright, but rather should form part of a broader conversation about the “best bang for our buck” in endangered species conservation. Whether or not this approach should encompass an examination of biodiversity, ecosystem-level impacts, and the consequences of climate change is the subject of a forthcoming post.

Climate Justice

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