Do Endangered Species have 12 Years to Wait?

My colleagues and I recently published on the time it takes to list a species under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA).  This post will highlight some of our main findings with a few extra thoughts I have about the data.

How long SHOULD it take to list a species under the ESA?
In 1982 the US Congress amended the ESA to have strict timelines for listing species.  Specifically, the Fish & Wildlife Service had 90 days to review a listing petition, then if the petition was “warranted” they had 12 months to write a proposed rule, then another 12 months to write a final rule.  If a species was not listed within this time, it was removed from the list of candidate species being considered for listing.  (There are some exceptions to these time lines including extra time if the science is in question, and the Warranted but Precluded clause which allows species to stay on candidate lists in perpetuity.)

Our data did not consider that first 90 days, partly because that process time is not available in public databases and partly because we didn’t want to submit all of those Freedom of Information Act requests (if you do, I will look forward to your paper).  However, the Government Accountability Office did a partial review of the petition phase and saw that it can vary from 3 months to 15 years!  This is an important and under-emphasized part of our paper, that the process times we reported were underestimated but we don’t know by how much.

Idealized listing process for the US Endangered Species Act. Our research did not look at that first segment (Petition Submitted to Decision). The process time between the black dots should take 2 years, but our new paper shows it takes a median of 12 years!  (Bars to scale)

How long DOES it take to list a species under the ESA?
Looking just at those warranted petitions until a final rule is posted, we estimated the median time was 12.1 years to list a species under the ESA.  Yeah, that’s 6X longer than the law allows!

There is high variability within this estimate which you can see in the figure below.  Some species move through the process quickly, yet many wait decades.  So what influences this variability?  A lot!  Our analyses identified that species taxonomy, who filed the initial petition, whether a conservation organization filed a lawsuit on behalf of the species, administrative policy under different presidents, and budget all influenced listings.  We didn’t account for the full range of politicians that could influence process time, but if you’re into this stuff check out these excellent papers (here and here) which show links between who sits on Congressional committees and how many endangered species get listed within their state.

Process time to list 1,338 species under the US Endangered Species Act. Similar to the figure above the three dots show dates for an accepted petition, proposed rule, and final rule.  The connecting grey bars give a sense for total time for each species.

What I really like about our analysis is that we show workload (petition, proposed rule, and final rule) over time (figure above).  You can see how much work was done in the ‘90s.  In retrospect this looks amazing compared to the depauperate years to come, but at the time conservationists were upset with the Clinton administration for not listing more species.  (Note, there is an edge effect as petitions initiated but not yet listed do not appear, and the Obama administration has initiated petitions over the last 7+ years.)  It begs the questions: what rate of species listing must happen to decrease extinction risk, and what rate will conservationists be happy with given large candidate backlogs?

Related to these questions about how much we want to protect is the issue of what cost we are willing to pay to protect wildlife.  Our discussion may be unoriginal (as one reviewer put it) to suggest increasing budgets to speed listings.  But we’re only reiterating what the Government Accountability Office said 14 years ago, that more staff is needed to read, research, and write these documents as they estimated that 90% of the listing budget was for salary.

Some of that workload density in the 1990s and 2010s was due to conservation NGOs filling lawsuits on behalf of species to move their listing process forward.  This practice is reviled by organizations with interests against protecting endangered species, and they have claimed that lawsuits slow down listings.  Our results do not support this claim.  We compared the time between the regular process (for species without lawsuits associated with their listing) to the time from the start of the process to the filing of the lawsuit (see figure below).  We observed that lawsuits were filed after species had already waited longer than species where no lawsuit was filed.  This is an important result, as it highlights the false assumptions in both the government’s and anti-environmental groups’ claims about how lawsuits affect the listing process.

We observed that lawsuits were associated with species that waited longer to get to the next step in the process. For example, for species moving from a petition to a proposed rule, we estimated that the time from petition to a lawsuit filing was longer than for species without lawsuits to get to the next step. Thus lawsuits help identify species stuck in the listing process. (Bars NOT to scale)

My colleagues and I want to see an efficiently functioning (and properly funded) ESA. And not just for listing which is only the first step; designating critical habitat and writing and implementing recovery plans are essential to species recovery. We hope our analysis makes its way to current and future administrators which have the power to fix biases in the process and request the funds need to fully implement this law.


*Photo credit for the Rota white-eye (Zosterops rotensis): Lainie Berry via ARKive.  The Rota white-eye is an endangered bird listed under the US Endangered Species Act in 2004 after waiting as a candidate for 23 years.


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