Fueling Extinction: Fed's Protection of Endangered Species Moving At Snail's Pace

A new study found that over the past four decades, imperiled species have waited an average of more than 12 years to receive protection -- six times longer that the law allows.
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An often cited standard response time for emergency workers in many localities is nine minutes or less. So you can only imagine the outrage, and additional loss of life, if first-responders routinely took six times longer to arrive - 54 minutes.

A new peer-reviewed study suggests that's exactly what's happening when it comes to providing endangered species protections for the Nation's most critically imperiled species.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife is required to determine whether imperiled plants and animals need to be officially listed as threatened or endangered in no more than two years.

But a new study I co-authored in the international scientific journal Biological Conservation found that over the past four decades, imperiled species have waited an average of more than 12 years to receive protection -- six times longer that the law allows.

The study, co-authored with Fordham University postdoctoral associate Dr. Emily Puckett and Dr. Dylan Kesler, a research associate with The Institute for Bird Populations, also found that vertebrate species like mammals and birds move through the process roughly twice as fast as invertebrates and plants. That means species like mollusks, insects and flowers that are critical parts of the web of life are often failing to get the timely protections they need.

What's the solution to these problems? Our study found that increased funding would certainly help the agency protect more species. It also found lawsuits from organizations like the one I work for, the Center for Biological Diversity, targeted species stuck in the process and sped protection.

This latter result directly refutes unsupported assertions routinely spouted by Republicans opposed to the Endangered Species Act -- that lawsuits filed by conservation groups and other interested parties draw resources away from species conservation and hurt the process for protecting species.

For the study, we analyzed the listing process for 1,338 species protected between 1973 and 2014 to determine how budget constraints, species taxonomy, lawsuits and presidential policy choices affected the length of time it took for species to receive protection.

We found that increased funding and lawsuits accelerated protection of species, but that policy choices and taxonomy had mixed impacts on the time required to gain protection.

Unfortunately, even though protection decisions are supposed to be based solely on science, who is in the White House has a tremendous impact on decisions about whether species receive protection. For example, only 62 species gained Endangered Species Act protection under the second Bush administration compared to 268 under the Obama administration and 522 under the Clinton administration.

The study recommends increased funding and better partnerships with nongovernmental organizations interested in biodiversity protection to address lengthy delays in protection.

We already know the cost of doing otherwise: At least 42 species have gone extinct waiting for protection.

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