Dear EarthTalk: Do environmentalists think the Endangered Species Act has been a success or failure with regard to protecting biodiversity in the U.S.?
— Ron McKnight, Trenton, NJ
While that very question has been a subject of debate already for decades, most environmental advocates are thankful such legislation is in place and proud of their government for upholding such high standards when it comes to preserving rare species of plants and animals.
That said, critics of the legislation make some solid points. For starters, only one percent of species (20 out of 2,000) under the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) have recovered sufficiently to qualify for delisting. And the millions of dollars spent on often failed recovery efforts are difficult to justify, especially in these otherwise tough economic times.
But even though the vast majority of species protected under the ESA have not recovered doesn’t undermine the significance of those species—bald eagles, gray wolves, and grizzly bear to name a few—that have rebounded thanks to forward thinking legislation and wildlife management. Louisa Wilcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council is grateful to the ESA for the continued existence of grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park. “After listing, the government cleaned up the massive garbage problems in Yellowstone Park, which reduced the habituation of bears to human foods—a pattern that often leads to grizzly deaths,” she reports. Commercial sheep herds were moved out of core grizzly habitat while hundreds of miles of roads on public lands in the region were closed to improve the iconic bears’ chances for survival. The result: The Yellowstone grizzly population more than doubled while human/bear interactions and incursions by hungry grizzlies onto local ranches have declined. “So, by any reckoning, the Yellowstone grizzly bear story is an ESA success,” concludes Wilcox.
To test whether or not the ESA has been effective on a grander scale, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), another leading green group, compared for its 2012 “On Time, On Target” report the actual recovery rate of 110 listed species with the projected recovery rate in their federal recovery plans. The 110 species occupy all 50 U.S. states, include all major taxonomic groups, and have various listing lengths.
CBD found that the ESA had “a remarkably successful recovery rate: 90 percent of species are recovering at the rate specified by their federal recovery plan,” adding: “On average, species recovered in 25 years, while their recovery plan predicted 23 years—a 91 percent timeliness accomplishment.”
CBD also confirmed the hypothesis that the majority of listed species have not enjoyed protection for long enough to warrant an expectation of recovery yet. “80 percent of species have not yet reached their expected recovery year,” reports CBD, adding that on average species have been listed for just 32 years, while their recovery plans required 46 years for success. This recent study’s findings echo the results of an earlier (2006) analysis in the Northeastern U.S. that found some 93 percent of federally listed species there were stabilized or improving since getting ESA protection and 82 percent were on track to meet recovery goals. “When judged in the light of meeting recovery plan timelines for recovery, the Endangered Species Act is remarkably successful,” says CBD. “Few laws of any kind can boast a 90 percent success rate.”