New research from the Center for Conservation Innovation (CCI) at Defenders of Wildlife, published in the journal Nature Communications, shows for the first time the importance of expert agencies to protecting imperiled species. This paper, “Data Indicate the Importance of Expert Agencies in Conservation Policy,” empirically supports the need for strong oversight of federal activities. It also suggests data-driven ways to improve efficiency without sacrificing protections. This is critical at a time when conservation laws and policies are under attack: understanding what works in conservation is essential in combatting the global biodiversity crisis.
The data analyzed by Defenders of Wildlife included every Endangered Species Act section 7 consultation between federal agencies and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) from 2000 through 2017. The analysis showed that agencies and NMFS agreed on how proposed federal projects would affect listed species most of the time, and that the consultation process rarely stops projects. Importantly, however, federal agencies underestimated the effects of their actions on listed species in 15% of consultations, relative to what species experts at NMFS concluded. This included 22 extreme cases where NMFS concluded the action would jeopardize the very existence of 14 species after the agency had determined its action would do no harm. In 6% of cases, agencies overestimated the effects of their actions, which meant additional resources may have been unnecessarily spent in analyses.
“This study emphasizes the critical role that the expert biologists at the Services play in assessing the impacts of proposed federal actions on threatened and endangered species,” said Michael Evans, CCI Senior Conservation Data Scientist and lead author on the study. “Our findings show that limiting or removing the Services from the consultation process could have disastrous consequences for imperiled species. And at the same time, we were able to identify areas where the consultation process could be made more efficient, without sacrificing protections to listed species.”
“Recent proposals to ‘streamline’ consultations by removing the species experts in the National Marine Fisheries Service from the process could be devastating to the species who need protection the most,” said Jacob Malcom, Director of the Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders of Wildlife and an author on the study. “Rather than try to cut protections, Congress should be strengthening and fully funding the expert agencies—National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—who ensure the protections for threatened and endangered species.”
The data and analyses can be explored using an interactive web app hosted on the CCI webpage: https://defenders-cci.org/shiny/open/NMFS_s7/
The U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), passed with overwhelming bipartisan support under the Nixon administration in 1973, is widely considered the strongest wildlife protection law in the world. The law is incredibly successful: more than 95% of listed species are still with us today and hundreds are on the path to recovery.
Section 7 of the ESA requires federal agencies to conserve listed species by not taking, funding, or authorizing any actions that would jeopardize their existence. They consult with either the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or National Marine Fisheries Services on any proposed actions that may affect listed species to fulfill this obligation.
If the Services determine an action may jeopardize a listed species, the Services must suggest “reasonable and prudent alternatives” that agencies can implement to reduce, or offset harm caused by the proposed action. If adopted, the agencies may legally proceed with the action.
By asking “How often do federal agencies overestimate or underestimate the effects of their actions on listed species?” this research evaluates whether proposals to reduce the role of the Services in consultations. Future research measuring the outcomes of consultation in terms of actions taken and species status would help determine the effectiveness of the program.
The 14 species for which NMFS issued jeopardy determinations after federal agencies determined their actions would not detrimentally affect the species were: boulder star coral, elkhorn coral, lobed star coral, mountainous star coral, pillar coral, rough cactus coral, staghorn coral, Nassau grouper, Chinook salmon, chum salmon, coho salmon, sockeye salmon, steelhead and southern resident killer whale.
Figures from the report can be downloaded for reporter use: U.S. Endangered Species Act section 7 consultation outcomes, Frequencies of determinations proposed by action agencies vs. final determinations made by NMFS, and pairs of species that received jeopardy determinations from the same proposed federal action more or less than expected.