On Time, On Target: How the ESA is saving America’s Wildlife

The Center for Biological Diversity just keeps on pumping it out. Today, they released this new report (PDF).  The Executive Summary is pasted below.


Critics of the Endangered Species Act contend it is a failure because only 1 percent of the species under its protection have recovered and been delisted. The critique, however, is undermined by its failure to explain how many species should have recovered by now. It is a ship without an anchor.

To objectively test whether the Endangered Species Act is recovering species at a sufficient rate, we compared the actual recovery rate of 110 species with the projected recovery rate in their federal recovery plans. The species range over all 50 states, include all major taxonomic groups, and have a diversity of listing lengths.

We found that the Endangered Species Act has a remarkably successful recovery rate: 90 percent of species are recovering at the rate specified by their federal recovery plan.

On average, species recovered in 25 years, while their recovery plan predicted 23 years — a 91 percent timeliness accomplishment.

We confirmed the conclusion of scientists and auditors who assert that the great majority of species have not been listed long enough to warrant an expectation of recovery: 80 percent of species have not yet reached their expected recovery year. On average, these species have been listed for just 32 years, while their recovery plans required 46 years of listing.

Many species that have not been listed long enough to reach their recovery goals increased dramatically since being protected by the Endangered Species Act:

California least tern2,819%  increase in nesting pairs
San Miguel island fox3,830%  increase in wild foxes
Black-footed ferret8,280%  increase in the fall population
Atlantic green sea turtle2,206%  increase in nesting females on Florida beaches
El Segundo blue butterfly22,312%  increase in butterflies

While many species are near or above the numeric population goal set by their recovery plan and will likely be delisted in the next 10 to 15 years, others also have strong recovery trends, but will not be delisted for many decades because their recovery plans require that much time to fully secure their fate.

The study’s findings are similar to a 2006 analysis of all federally protected species in the Northeast, which found 93 percent were stabilized or improving since being put on the endangered species list and 82 percent were on pace to meet recovery goals.

When judged in the light of meeting recovery plan timelines for recovery, the Endangered Species Act is remarkably successful. Few laws of any kind can boast a 90 percent success rate.

21 thoughts on “On Time, On Target: How the ESA is saving America’s Wildlife”

  1. Sadly, the ESA doesn’t protect species like goshawks and spotted owls from catastrophic wildfires, destroying the nesting habitat for which they were listed in the first place. Strictly “preserving” sickly, crowded and highly-flammable forests means that those birds will remain endangered forever. Surely, wildlife experts can produce effective treatment plans to enhance and protect those essential core areas of nesting habitat. The annual windows to accomplish such habitat enhancements are small, but workable, after the birds leave the nest.

    Also, when firefighters make decisions to let crucial habitats burn, do they go against the ESA? It is often a conscious black and white decision, in advance of ignition, to abandon the ESA in favor of “getting fire back on the land”, at any cost.

  2. I wouldn’t say the ESA is abandoned. The Forest Service works with Fish and Wildlife service to do emergency consultation when fire burns through owl Protected Activity Centers, or when it appears this may occur. The purpose of this consultation is to identify steps that can be taken to best protect owl habitat from damage. Furthermore, during wildfire suppression or fire managed for resource benefit, owl habitat and other wildlife habitat is considered along with waterways, arch sites, and houses and other structures as part of the ‘values at risk’ to avoid if at all feasible. In addition, suppression efforts such as putting in dozer lines, doing a retardant drop, or other actions usually result in much more damaging impacts when in owl or other species habitat rather than allowing the fire to burn through these areas. So, I think it really depends on the situation and ESA is effective at making sure endangered and threatened species habitat is part of the situation being considered.

    I agree that the current 1995 Recovery Plan ( for the Mexican spotted owl) has led land managers to error on the side of non-treatment resulting in unecessary impacts to owls. The Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to release a revised version sometime soon, which will hopefully result in greater flexibility to enhance and protect core habitat.

    • Of course, they didn’t survey for ANY endangered species before creating their “Maximum Management Areas” (aka Let-Burn). I’d think that an MMA of 100,000 acres would require formal NEPA but, the firefighters prefer their own brand of semi-NEPA, which conveniently ignores important issues, and is non-actionable in court (as of now). I’d have to say that Let-Burn fires are MUCH more destructive than simple thinning projects. Fires burn in protected drainages, steep terrain, archeological sites, botanical sites, core habitats, etc. Timber projects have to avoid most of those, by law. The Act doesn’t say to merely “consider” such issues. There are many laws protecting such “values”, and Let-Burn fires appear to not follow them. Surely, last year’s Wilderness fire near Mount Hood illustrates the desire to ignore such laws, by firebombing “protected” Wilderness and habitat. Also, I’d like to see an inventory documenting how many Mexican spotted owl nest trees were destroyed by the Wallow Fire. How many “protected” areas were affected/destroyed by the fire?

      It is a good sign that the wildlife folks are willing to alter their recovery plans but, how much are they willing to sacrifice before “Let-Burn” is shot down in court? The public is tiring of suffering for weeks with the impacts of a fire the Forest Service refuses to put out. The public is also tired of seeing no action in forest stewardship. Only controlled fire is “natural and beneficial”. We always hear about “unforeseen weather conditions” when a Let-Burn fire escapes after 2 weeks of burning. This is unacceptable!

    • Agreed. Last year during the Medano fire in Great Sand Dunes NP, managers let the fire burn into the backcountry andworked at the same time with USFWS and others to protect endangered cutthroat trout, scooping some of them out of the stream even as the fire still burned. The two aren’t mutually exclusive except in the very narrow world view of some small-minded critics.

  3. Larry, don’t want to get into an arguement, you know I’m all for responsible land management, but I would offer up a few considerations before you get going too far down the wrong path here….

    With regard to “refusing to put out”…

    (c) A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the
    landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are
    untrammeled by man, (fire suppression)…. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence……which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work (fire suppression) substantially unnoticeable….

    Line officers are the only ones authorized to make a “go” decison on a “let burn” wildfire. They must recieve training and have experience to do so. Decision authority goes up as the complexity increases. There’s no fire guys doing their own brand of semi NEPA. All decisions are documented in WFDSS and validated periodically by the Line Officer.

    The fire management plan for a unit ties back to the LRMP and thus satisfies the NEPA end of things. The MMA is a function of the different management area direction, even outside wilderness.

    All known heritage sites (and other “values at risk”) are mapped and taken into consideration when making a “go” (let burn) decision. To my knowledge, and in my experience, TES species and/or habitat hasn’t entered into the equation, since one could argue that restoration of fire into an ecosystem is beneficial in the long run. I’m sure there are many site specific examples where this may not be the case, again, it’s just in my experience in our neck of the woods.

    FSM direction at 2323.31 and 2324.21 do seem to conflict in a few places, but that’s getting way off track.

    AS far as smoke…..well a coughing, hacking angry public IS a good ally for MORE responsible land management (logging), eh?

    • To be blunt, if there aren’t surveys for TES species, then it doesn’t fit under NEPA. This is a fundamental disconnect with the ESA. And, you cannot say that “restoration of fire” into today’s unnatural forests will be “beneficial”, especially when talking about owls and goshawk nesting habitats. When it is burned, it may take a century or two to replace it. We simply don’t have enough nesting habitat to risk burning it up. Active “restoration of fire” should occur only in areas that have already been treated for excess fuels. How can an MMA of 100,000 acres have been adequately surveyed before designation? I really doubt that there has been ANY adequate surveys done on ANY MMA. There ARE established scientific protocols for specific surveys and it would take years to survey 100,000 acres. AND, what if a pair of birds comes in and takes up residence? Do you re-survey every so many years? Not likely! Simply put, a “planned wildfire” has a great many more impacts on the land than a thinning project requiring an EIS.

      I’m certainly all in favor of controlled fire but, letting fires burn in the middle of the summer takes away important fire resources from other potential and existing fires closer to humans. Prescribed fires are the way to go but, the prescriptions, liability and air quality issues make them problematic to apply to scale.

  4. I agree that the Center for Biological Diversity keeps “pumping it out.” A NINETY PERCENT “success” rate for the ESA?!? That’s taking “it” to a whole new level of statistical tomfoolery.

    What a crock. Please don’t respond with an agency definition of “recover.” The sad thing is that the donors to CBD (not to mention us taxpayers) keep pumping it in while CBD keeps pumping it out.

    They should be embarrassed, rather than smugly self-congratulatory. The ESA is a failure by almost all standards of rural America no matter the inflated butterfly counts and hundreds of animals waiting in line for their 23 years of “recovery.” What a racket.

  5. Good to see that some people still won’t let new research and information get in the way of their already-formed notions about the Endangered Species Act…no matter how well, or poorly, informed those notions might be.

    Once again, we have commenters that don’t bother to a look at the actual research and info documented in a report. Nope. They’d rather just lob general insults against the ESA rather then celebrate the fact that black-footed ferrets had a 8000+% increase in fall population or the Atlantic green sea turtle had a 2200+% increase of nesting females on Florida beaches.

    Why celebrates these, and many other facts and success stories of the ESA, when you can belly-ache with largely rural myths, right?

    Perhaps, if as Bob says, “The ESA is a failure by almost all standards of rural America no matter the inflated butterfly counts and hundreds of animals waiting in line for their 23 years of ‘recovery'”…..

    Such statements say more about rural America, than they do about the ESA. (And I make this statement as someone who grew up in a rural Wisconsin town of less than 1000 people where our family has been for 6 generations).

    • When human-enhanced wildfires burn up rare habitats, the ESA blithely turns away, muttering “natural and beneficial…. natural and beneficial… natural and beneficial” under its breath. Personally, I’m not in favor of repealing it but, isn’t it time for an update? When was it last modified to reflect new knowledge?

    • Matt:

      Are you accusing me of knee-jerk reactions in the same way you are saying that increases in animal populations — which have been taking place for billions of years — are the direct result of ESA? Sorry for not being so gullible, but the ESA came into existence while I was an adult, operating a business in the woods. It has been a disaster, and the claims of “recovered” wildlife populations have been little — if any — consolation to those of us that have been affected by this well-intention boondoggle at a personal cost of thousands of hours and millions of our own dollars (I can document this claim, and so can many others). And I know phony statistics when I see them. Unlike you, Matthew, I actually am a scientist and could probably lecture you (without the snide digs) on critical reading skills. This isn’t “science” we’re talking about here, Matt, it’s semantics. And self-promotion.

      • Wolves are a success story Bob. Why thanks to ESA, we now have a thriving population here in the Northern Rockies, and soon Oregon, and Californian, and Washington, and most recently South Dakota…..

        • JZ: Sure, but that’s only ONE species — not “90%!” Plus, it didn’t take 23 years for the introduced wolves to “recover” (some might say “infest”). The effect was almost immediate.

          The ESA must be very proud.

  6. Thanks for the response Bob. Yes, Bob, I do believe that increases in the populations of ESA-listed animals is the result of the ESA and the recovery plans put in place for listed species, among other factors on a case-by-case basis. And by the way, unlike you, I am a certified high school English teacher so I believe my “critical reading skills” are just fine.

  7. Matt: I am genuinely impressed that you are a HS English teacher — it was one of my very first (failed) career choices. Sorry to hear about your beliefs, though. Very different than mine.

    I remember Animal Farm from one of my HS English classes. I’m hoping students still read it. If I were a teacher with an interest in the environment, I’d have the kids read the book and then begin a discussion on the power and meaning of words. Then I’d drop “conservation,” “species,” “protection,” “critical habitat,” and “recovery” into the hopper.

    PS “Critical reading skills” for writers often has a significantly different meaning for scientists. Form vs. substance.

      • No idea. I’d suggest asking a seething scientist that question, Dave.

        If you are referring to me and my contempt for the environmental industry lawyers and the ologists they’ve teamed up with to destroy our rural communities and our nation’s forests via ESA and the courts, you’ll just have to take my word for it that it hasn’t caused me to seethe. More like an annoying toothache that won’t go away and keeps threatening to get worse, and then does. Seething doesn’t help. Extraction does.

        It is this terrible situation, based on a lot of traditional politics and “new” scientific discoveries that has really ruined the lives of thousands of Oregonians and millions of wildlife that gets me upset. I’ve seen the whole ESA thing hatch, grow, and become a grotesque caricature of the intentions of its original sponsors. It’s not pretty, despite the pretty photographs the fundraisers like to use.

        It hasn’t caused me to seethe yet, but I have followed this mess from the beginning, and am dedicated to keeping a light on these guys so that people really know what’s going on with all this coffee-table wildfire, 90%, 23-years more financial support needed stuff.

        It’s a sham, in my opinion. My work deals with documentation of actual forest conditions in the 19th century — and it doesn’t match the ridiculous “critical habitat” models of the ESA industry. Which is mostly conjectural and theoretical and nonsense-statistical. In my calm opinion.

  8. Sorry Bob, but at the risk of being personally attacked for my cognitive, writing and reading skills, your rhetoric seethes with both personal attacks, and apparently, things not going well for you (and certainly not well for the rest of America). The resulting predicament constitutes the effects of a problem. We fundamentally disagree about causation of the problem.

    We also seem to disagree about what the highest and best uses of our national forest system should be, its management, and even what a forest is. A forest is not a crop– it is a community. What happens to one member of a community happens to all its members. ESA was passed in a bygone era under a Republican administration in full recognition of the structure and function of this forest community. The fates of forest communities and human communities are inextricably entwined.

    On the other hand, America is filled with privatized tree plantations Bob — bitter fruits of a colonial mindset which spawned the genocidal crimes in high places occurring in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Sounds like you are familiar with both the 19th century and tree plantations (including your own private tree plantation), so this distinction between plantations and community should not be new ground to cover.

    Your self admitted, “contempt for the environmental industry lawyers and the ologists they’ve teamed up with to destroy our rural communities and our nation’s forests via ESA and the courts…” in my view, is narrow, misattributed blame stemming from the perspective of plantation ownership.

    America has been punished by such seething deregulatory rhetoric and free market fundamentalism too long. The elimination of key firewalls within the Glass-Steagall Act resulted in our economic predicament. Elimination of the firewalls in ESA, likewise, will render the coup de gras to forest communities, and ultimately to human communities.

    Your claim that ESA was a causative factor used to “destroy” rural communities is bizarre territory for a scientist such as yourself. Those communities were not “destroyed” but certainly were already systemically afflicted by an unsustainable boom-bust resource extraction model driving their economies. ESA worked, in that those communities were forced to deal with the inevitable realities of an unsustainable, and fundamentally flawed economic model.

    Until we actually deal with causation– that hopelessly dysfunctional economic model — attacking other commenters on national forest issues and even the laws such as ESA (functioning exactly as Congress intended), is simply seething, misdirected contempt.

    • Again, using the past to block the future. The past is a terrible measure for the presnt-day forestry practices. I know of no one who wants to go back to the 60’s era clearcutting, roadbuilding and abolishing all wildlife protections. Therefore, arguing against such a mindset is a ridiculous exercise in ignorance of modern-day scientific reality. This is where preservationists WILL fail!

    • Jeez, Dave: I guess you didn’t believe me when I said I was not a seether, so now you must think I’m dishonest to boot! I would, however, caution you about your psychoanalysis of me and/or my writing style — from my perspective, it is better suited for your own pronouncements and was heavily dependent on your use of a mirror. The old one finger points at someone else by pointing three fingers at yourself situation.

      Certainly I continue to disagree with most of what you say, but I could have probably picked a better adjective than “destroy.” Maybe “seriously crippled” is more accurate. And, if the ESA is operating “exactly as Congress intended,” as you state, then the situation is far more serious than I thought. But, again, I think you’re mistaken.

      Finally, to argue that a “crop is not a community” is pretty goofy. I don’t think it is either one, but contains elements of both — which are both artificial constructs invented by people. You may not have heard of Hugh Raup, but he developed some of the best arguments against plant succession and plant communities as anyone. Personally, I believe forests can contain “crops” (if managed that way), but is not cropland; and that “communities” of diverse plants and animals don’t actually exist in nature (mostly in classrooms), but that competitive, resilient, and opportunistic assemblages of plants and animals exist everywhere that hasn’t been covered with asphalt or concrete.

  9. Bob, you quoted, ‘to argue that a “crop is not a community” is pretty goofy’

    Better go back and reread my last. Never said it Bob. Your quotations are in error.

    I wrote, “A forest is not a crop– it is a community.” (So much for your “critical reading skills”)

    However, you’re totally in character using “goofy”.

    Nice touch.


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