A Wink and a Nod Won't Save a Declining Species

What do a chicken, a lizard and a grouse all have in common? Sounds like a bad joke, doesn't it? Well, unfortunately for these imperiled species, it's not a joke. In fact, the answer to that question could determine their very survival. You see, each of these has been listed as a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for many years. While their status as candidate species does not provide them with any actual protection under the ESA, it does show that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the Service) believes that they should be proposed to be listed.

But what most people don't realize is that there is no real biological difference between a candidate species and a listed species. That's right: species are not placed on the candidate list because they are less imperiled than listed species. The sole reason these species are designated as candidates is because there is inadequate funding to complete the listing process at that time.

So these species have to wait, and wait, and wait until one day, they finally get to the front of the listing line and get the protections they truly need.

That's what the dunes sagebrush lizard, the lesser prairie chicken and the Gunnison and greater sage- grouse have in common. After decades of waiting, the Service finally set in motion the listing process for these species, triggering an eleventh hour stampede by the affected states that have hurriedly cobbled together land use proposals designed to avoid the listings.

Take for example the dunes sagebrush lizard. Here is an animal that has been on the candidate list for over a decade and was already in deep trouble in the 20 years even before it received recognition as a candidate species. Almost no conservation efforts were implemented during this stunningly long wait. But as soon as the Service proposed to list the species, Texas hurriedly threw together a totally inadequate "candidate conservation agreement" that benefits oil and gas companies and not the lizard. What is shocking about this agreement is the complete lack of transparency as to what is actually happening on the ground for lizard conservation: Under the terms of the Texas lizard agreement, the Service is not allowed to review any of the participating landowner agreements. That means that the Service has no idea what conservation commitments are being made, who is making them, and whether in fact they are being complied with and are working. Even so, the Service literally blindly signed off on this agreement, with only a wink and a nod from Texas, and withdrew its proposal to list the lizard.

The lizard candidate conservation agreement with Texas commits the state to ensure that only 1 percent of the enrolled land can be disturbed in the first three years. But over the course of the first year of the agreement, from May 2012-13, Defenders of Wildlife has documented that the Texas state comptroller, who is responsible for implementing the candidate conservation agreement, reported to the Service that no disturbances took place on any of these lands. Contrary to the reports from Texas, however, a simple review of aerial maps of just one portion of the region clearly showed that significant habitat disturbances had taken place, such as the building of numerous oil platforms and an extensive road.

How could the Service walk away from listing this imperiled species based on such a flimsy and unenforceable agreement? Agreements that lack this sort of transparency and accountability are certainly not going to pull a species like the sand dunes lizard back from the brink of extinction.

Clearly, this is no way to recover an imperiled species and it certainly should not be viewed as a model for keeping a species off of the endangered species list. Based on the growing political pressure on the Service to avoid listing the lesser prairie chicken and Gunnison and greater sage-grouse at all costs, it would not be surprising to see an additional wave of biologically inadequate candidate conservation agreements being signed that are no substitute for the protections provided by the Endangered Species Act.

Recovering a candidate species is no easy task since they historically have been stuck on the candidate list for years, if not decades and are often in extremely dire straits by the time they finally move to the front of the line for listing. Recovery goals for candidate species need to effectively address and resolve not only the original threats to the species, but also secure and expand their populations. This sort of biological progress requires time, often a lot of time. Species recover according to their own biological timeframe, not to artificial political deadlines that we create.

Instead of fixating on what needs to be done to avoid a listing, the more relevant and legal question needs to be "What is necessary to conserve the species?"

If we are going to have candidate conservation agreements that are truly effective, the assurances need to work for both the imperiled species and the participating landowner. To make this happen, the Service needs to ensure that the conservation goals for a candidate species match those that would be required for the recovery of the species if it were listed, and that candidate agreements provide for proper transparency, monitoring and accountability. Candidate conservation agreements are badly needed but they need to be initiated early on and not be a last-minute response to a possible listing. They also need to be biologically sound and effective. Successfully addressing these concerns will go a long way towards ensuring that future candidate plans are way more than a last-ditch wink and a nod.