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Endangered species need more help.

Endangered species need more help

The 15-year-old Endangered Species Act requires the interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to develop and implement specific plans to aid all U.S. species listed as "endangered" (facing imminent extinction) or "threatened" (likely to become endangered soon). However, two new reports indicate that federal programs aimed at recovering these species -- returning them to a nonthreatened status -- fall far short of what the law mandates.

According to a report issued Jan. 18 by the General Accounting Office (GAO), while it's not possible to save all species threatened with extinction, "biologists we interviewed suggested that recovery is possible for nearly 70 percent of the listed domestic species" -- if appropriate recovery plans are enacted. However, as of May 1988, no recovery plans had been developed for 113 U.S. species--26 percent of those listed at that time. Moreover, GAO found, even for the 271 species having recovery plans, completion of recovery activities -- such as creating a captive breeding program, monitoring wild populations or buying critical habitat -- averaged 6.5 years.

Although FWS has jurisdiction over 96.3 percent of the listed species, GAO found NMFS has the poorer track record. NMFS had no recovery plans for 61 percent of its listed species, compared with 40 percent of species covered by FWS. Moreover, NMFS has taken far longer to begin developing those plans -- an average of 13.8 years, compared with 2.8 at FWS.

Officials of both agencies told GAO tight budgets were the primary reason they had not completed recovery programs for listed U.S. species. And a December analysis of FWS programs by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation--an independent organization set up by Congress in 1984 -- agrees that "the endangered species program is seriously underfunded and understaffed given the scope of its legally mandated duties." But one major reason for that, the foundation charges, is FWS' failure to let Congress -- which sets its budget -- know exaclty how many species need "emergency" help.

And there are many. Roughly 4,600 species have been proposed for listing. FWS estimates about 1,000 of these will warrant immediate listing -- and therefore protection. But under its current budget, FWS can list only about 60 species a year, the foundation notes, suggesting that even the most endangered may await federal protection for at least 16 years.

Funding doesn't the whole problem, however. When time and money are short, both agencies must adopt a triage approach for crisis management, GAO says. NMFS has no such system for identifying which species would benefit from the quickest attention or most money, although one is under development. While FWS does have such a system, GAO found the agency generally ignored most species highest on the priority list, concentrating instead on those with high "public appeal" or facing imminent recovery.

For example, in 1986 FWS directed 25 percent of all recovery funds not congressionally earmarked for specific species to just four animals -- the American peregrine falcon, southern sea otter, gray wolf and Aleutian Canada goose. None of these is listed as endangered, GAO notes, or is even highly threatened throughout most of its range.

GAO recommends that in addition to making better use of a triage system for aiding listed species and periodically assessing whether species-recovery plans need changing, each agency should develop computerized files on the status of listed species. "[C]entralized information on the status of all listed domestic species would be beneficial," agrees Commerce Under Secretary William Evans, who says NMFS will consider developing such a file. FWS is now field-testing its own system to track a species' status.
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Publication:Science News
Date:Feb 4, 1989
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