FWS Gives Conservation Scientists a To Do List

The US Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced that they were changing how they prioritized species to be listed as threatened or endangered of extinction under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  (Here’s the final rule in the Federal Register- 81 FR 49248).  The Service claims that changing how 90-day petitions and 12-month status reviews are prioritized will provide greater transparency to the ESA listing process.

ESA Prioritizing: Then and Now
The ESA has assigned priority scores to species since 1983 (see chart below).  Three criteria were used to determine the priority where 1 was highest priority and 12 lowest.  First they determined if the species was in high, or moderate to low risk of extinction, then if that threat was imminent or not.  Finally, they applied the biological criterion of the taxonomic uniqueness of a species; specifically a monotypic genus (i.e. a genus with only one species within it), a species, or a subspecies or distinct population segment (DPS).

Endangered Species Act Priority Listing Numbers developed in 1983
Endangered Species Act Priority Listing Numbers developed in 1983

The old methodology focused on threats and biology to assign priority; in this way the new criteria differ dramatically as they mainly account for the amount of data available to make a listing determination.  There are five new “Priority Bins” (again 1 is highest priority), with the following designations:

  1. Critically Imperiled
  2. Strong Data on Status Available
  3. New Science Underway to Inform Key Uncertainties
  4. Conservation Efforts in Developments or Underway
  5. Limited Data Currently Available

Additionally there are three sub-ranking considerations to further prioritize species within each bin:

  1. Level of complexity of the status review
  2. Extent which ESA protections could aid recovery
  3. Geography (so as not to overload a single region with newly listed species)

The prioritization is being listed alongside the National Listing Workplan, which is a seven year outlook on which species will be addressed in the years to come.  While the workplan is transparent, it is also discouraging to know that some species will not be considered at all for seven years!  This certainly seems as though the Service is taking a public step back from the statue which outlines a two year process.

Opportunities for Conservation Scientists

“The need for more study is a well-worn excuse that can always be used to delay protection decisions.”
~Tierra Curry with the Center for Biological Diversity

Given that three of the five bins (2, 3, and 5) are related to the amount of information known about a species, I see an opportunity for scientists.  Specifically, initiate projects that focus on species in bins 5 (Data Deficient) and 3 (New Data Forthcoming).  Lack of protection for species categorized as Data Deficient has been recognized in other endangered species legislation including Canada’s SARA and IUCN Red List.  And this is the big fear for ESA supporters, that by categorizing a species as Data Deficient it will amount to giving up on the species and permanent candidate status (versus listing).  But it doesn’t have to if individuals and funding agencies make targeted efforts to fill in the knowledge gaps.

Number of species in new Priority Bins (top; n=333) and old Listing Priority Numbers (bottom; n=30) as of September 2016.
Number of species in new Priority Bins (top; n=333) and old Listing Priority Numbers (bottom; n=30) as of September 2016.

Is This Transparency?

“This new methodology allows the Service to more effectively implement the Endangered Species Act by providing greater transparency and predictability to our partners and the public”
~ Dan Ashe with the US Fish and Wildlife Service

Personally, I think the prioritization system is a lot fuzzier than it was before which is concerning given the reason for the change is cited as transparency. The Service argues that the bins were created given their knowledge of how they list species under the ESA given 40 years of experience. One of the early iterations of my ESA process time paper (blog post, journal article) had an analysis of priority listing numbers. We observed some expected patterns, such as species listed as endangered were higher priority than threatened species. But look at the figure below, it shows that listed and proposed species had a higher density of high priority scores. This suggests that FWS was already addressing the most imperiled species with the old prioritization scoring. This is why I feel unsure about the binning.

It is interesting that both supporters and opponents of the ESA feel uneasy about the bins. Take a read through the comments that FWS responded to (bottom of the Federal Register announcement), both sides take issue with the same parts of the methodology! For example, ESA supporters are concerned that species will never escape the potential black hole of Bin 5; while, ESA opponents see that as a holding ground until the species can be listed, versus determining that listing is not warranted. Both sides are going to have to hold on to see how this new methodology differs from implementation over the last 30+ years.

Histogram of mean priority scores for species that were either ESA listed (top), candidates (middle), or proposed for listing (bottom) as of 2013. Data starts in 1997, thus the mean priority score calculated over years was graphed. Finally, the species represented were not candidates before 1997 for this dataset. (Puckett, unpublished data)
Histogram of mean priority scores for species that were either ESA listed (top), candidates (middle), or proposed for listing (bottom) as of 2013. Data starts in 1997, thus the mean priority score calculated over years was graphed. Finally, the species represented were not candidates before 1997 for this dataset. (Puckett, unpublished data)

 

Side Image- The Arizona Toad (Anaxyrus microscaphus) is one of the Bin 5 species lacking data on status. Photo credit: William Flaxington on EOL

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