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Overcoming challenges to species recovery.


In 1973, when the Endangered Species Act (ESA) became law, the endangered and threatened species list numbered only 77 species, none of which were invertebrates or plants, and iconic species such as the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocepbalus), gray wolf (Canis lupus), and grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) were very rare and severely reduced in range within the conterminous United States. These creatures symbolize why the ESA was voted into law by an overwhelming majority in Congress, and with such a clear purpose: "to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved, to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species and threatened species...."

Now, after 32 years of the ESA, let's take another look at the species mentioned above. The bald eagle can be seen flying throughout all of the lower 48 states again. Gray wolves have met their recovery targets in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, as well as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. A healthy population of grizzly bears now inhabits Yellowstone National Park, and it has been proposed for removal from the list of threatened and endangered species.

Stabilizing and recovering species is far from easy. There are many biological, financial, and social challenges to overcome. However, we have achieved considerable success in these endeavors, due primarily to the use of creative partnerships. Our partners include foreign governments, other federal agencies, state governments, private landowners, the business community, and various non-governmental organizations.

We also apply an ecosystem-based approach to conservation, addressing a conservation issue at the landscape level rather than just concentrating on specific problems at hand. Each ecosystem contains an interconnected framework of biological and physical processes. Damage to the framework can affect the ecosystem's ability to support a diversity of life. The damage can be caused by natural events, such as hurricanes or volcanoes, and it can take the form of human impacts, such as habitat loss or chemical contamination. These impacts can be serious problems for species. Despite these many setbacks along the road to survival and recovery, we continue to move forward.

One of the biggest challenges the Fish and Wildlife Service faces in recovering listed species is the sheer number of species needing help. In addition to the 1,256 U.S. plant and animal species listed as of November 8, 2005, there are 286 candidate (1) species. Thousands more are considered "species of concern" or "critically imperiled" by states, environmental groups, and scientists. To plan and implement recovery actions for all listed species, the Service's Endangered Species Recovery Program received $58 million in FY 2005, an average of $46,400 per species. If you subtract the amount of money earmarked for specific projects, that leaves a total of $44.1 million, or $36,880 per species.

How do we make progress in the face of overwhelming odds and declining resources? By taking one species at a time, maximizing our partnerships, and promoting creativity. Since 1973, we have removed from the list (delisted) 10 domestic species due to recovery. Some would say that this is a poor success rate. However, success cannot be measured merely in delisting statistics. We have also downlisted 16 species from endangered to the less critical classification of threatened, stabilized or improved another 350 species, and, more importantly, we have prevented approximately 900 species from going over the brink into extinction. That's actually a good success rate! And when we stand back and review the history of species like the bald eagle, gray wolf, and grizzly bear, we know that every small stride adds up over the years.


The following are a few examples of other species faced with interesting recovery challenges and what's being done to improve their status:

Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle

The Kemp's ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) spends many of its juvenile years foraging in U.S. waters and was once know to nest only at Rancho Nuevo in Tamaulipas, Mexico. A 1940s film showed a single arribada (mass nesting emergence) of an estimated 40,000 female Kemp's ridleys on one day. Despite Mexico's protective efforts, the number of nesting turtles fell to about 5,000 females by 1968. The Kemp's ridley was listed by the U.S. in 1970 as endangered due to threats that included the take of eggs and adults for human use, and incidental capture and drowning in shrimp trawls.

In 1978, the Service joined Mexico in an international conservation program that has attracted additional partners through the years. Nesting numbers continued to decline, however, to a low of only 702 nests documented for the entire season in 1985. By the late 1980s, however, nesting numbers had begun to increase. During the 2003 nesting season, more than 8,288 nests were documented in Mexico, with a small scattering of nests in Texas as well. Since Kemp's ridley females nest 2 or 3 times each season, the nests represent perhaps 2,700 to 4,000 females. The Kemp's Ridley Recovery Plan identifies one of the downlisting criteria as attaining a population of at least 10,000 females nesting in a season. After a narrow brush with extinction, the progress towards recovery is heartening.


With slowly maturing species, it can take years to reverse a population decline. The recovery of some species is also "conservation dependent." For them, certain management activities will be needed in perpetuity to address difficult threats and ensure the species does not simply decline again to endangerment if it is delisted. For the sea turtle, both protection of females on the nesting beach, as well as protection from incidental capture and drowning in fishing trawls, will be necessary on a continuing basis in order to ensure long-term recovery.


Tinian Monarch

The Tinian monarch (Monarcba takatsukasae), a small bird from the island of Tinian in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, was one of the original species listed tinder the ESA. (2) It was listed as endangered due to critically low population numbers caused by the destruction of its habitat from World War II activities and pre-war agricultural practices. However, surveys in the late 1990s showed that the amount and density of forest habitat had increased and the bird's population numbers had rebounded. It was delisted on September 21, 2004.

However, while the original threats to the species had been abated, a new threat looms on the horizon: the non-native, highly invasive brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis). While the snake has not established itself on Tinian, there have been several confirmed sightings, and it is responsible for decimating bird populations on other islands within the Marianas. To counter this potential challenge and to comply with the five-year post-delisting monitoring requirement of the ESA, an aggressive monitoring program has been developed in cooperation with the Commonwealth, the U.S. Geological Survey/Biological Resources Discipline, U.S. Department of Agriculture/Wildlife Services, and the Department of the Navy. The plan includes monitoring the bird's population numbers, monitoring the snake, monitoring land use, and recommendations for increasing efforts to prevent the snakes from spreading. One of the components of the plan includes building a snake barrier around Tinian's port to prevent any snakes that may come in on shipments from leaving the quarantine area. The plan is now being put in place, and the next five years of monitoring will show how successfully we can overcome the challenge of invasive species and keep our recovered species from returning to the list.

Kirtland's Warbler

Migratory birds have their own recovery challenges. These species may travel long distances from wintering grounds in other countries to nest in the U.S. The Kirtland's warbler (Dendroica kirtlandii) is one of these. This bird is considered endangered across its entire range. After breeding in the jack pine plains of Michigan's lower peninsula, it winters in the Bahamas. Limited habitat and brood parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds are two reasons why the warbler is endangered. Managing these problems in the warbler's breeding area has been the focus of combined efforts by the Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and non-governmental organizations such as The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Conservation actions have been very successful so far, although continued work is required to maintain the population in the breeding grounds.

However, the Kirtland's warbler spends about eight months of each year in its wintering areas. Little is known about its wintering biology, and efforts to learn more have been difficult. In fall and winter, this bird has dull brown plumage, making it well camouflaged, and its behavior is inconspicuous. A joint research project involving TNC, the Bahamas National Trust, and the Forest Service is trying to gain a better understanding of the species' winter habitat requirements and conservation needs.

Flies, rats, and beetles--oh, my!

Mention the term "endangered species" and most people think of wolves, grizzly bears, sea otters, and bald eagles, or perhaps even sea turtles or salmon. But the vast majority of listed species aren't large, cute, or showy. In fact, most are downright small and inconspicuous. More than half of the listed species in the U.S. are plants, many with very restricted ranges and specific habitat requirements. Of the 527 listed animals in the U.S. (as of November 17, 2005), more than 170 are invertebrates (including mussels, beetles, crayfish, and spiders, to name a few), 57 species are amphibians and reptiles, and 114 are fish (most of which are small species occurring in only a few drainages or basins). The 90 listed birds include such large and impressive species as the bald eagle and California condor (Gymnogyvps californianus), but many are small and less well-known. The 78 listed mammals include 29 rodents, 3 rabbits, 1 shrew, and 9 bats.

Less charismatic species often face challenges to recovery not experienced by their more captivating counterparts. Because many species are lesser known, small, and inconspicuous, they are often overlooked by landowners, managers, and potential conservation partners. For species with very restricted ranges, the pool of potential partners and interested public is limited, resulting in fewer opportunities and less funding for recovery. The roles of many non-charismatic species in their environment also are not obvious or easily recognized except to scientists, and the public may not care about or see the benefits of recovery efforts.


Many non-charismatic listed species also have image problems. Bats, spiders, and snakes don't usually elicit popular support. Some species also suffer from unfortunate associations with disliked animals. The six listed species of kangaroo rats, two species of woodrats, and one rice rat bear little resemblance or relationship to a common pest species but tend to suffer because of their common names.

Threats affecting many non-charismatic species also may be less manageable. Banning DDT was a relatively straightforward and successful recovery action for peregrine falcons (Falcoperegrinus), bald eagles, and brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), and the end of deliberate persecution made it possible to restore gray wolves. But for most species, the loss or degradation of habitat is the major threat, and one that is difficult to reverse.

For example, the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly (Rbaphiomidas terminatus abdominalis) is an insect endemic to the Colton Dunes ecosystem, which once covered over 40 square miles (104 sq. kilometers) in Riverside and San Bernardino counties in California. The Colton Dunes were created largely as a result of sand blown by the Santa Ana winds into the canyons of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains. The species surviving in this unusual habitat have had to adapt to an ever-changing substrate, as the winds vary each year. For the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly, spending most of its life underground seems to be the best way to cope with its dynamic environment. As its name implies, this insect depends on wildflower nectar during its brief above-ground phase. Like a hummingbird, the colorful fly hovers at flowers, and it feeds through a long proboscis (tubular protrusion of mouth). Due to widespread loss of habitat, primarily the result of agriculture conversion and urbanization, the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly is now restricted to less than two percent of its former range. Despite its interesting life history, the biggest challenge to recovery of this species is the fact that it is a fly, an insect that many people consider a pest.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Until its rediscovery on the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas of 2004, most people would have said that the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) was extinct. Despite previous surveys, there had not been a confirmed sighting since the 1930s. How could a species go undetected for so long? There were two main reasons; it was uncommon to begin with, and it inhabits remote, swampy, bottomland habitats.

The rediscovery led to a partnership that includes the Nature Conservancy of Arkansas, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, Cornell University, and the Service. A recovery team was quickly formed and has completed a recovery outline (interim conservation strategy that focuses recovery efforts until a full recovery plan can be drafted). The "Big Thicket" partnership will continue with efforts to carry out additional surveys in other suitable habitat, conserve and manage existing habitat, and conduct necessary research. In the meantime, the rediscovery provides hope that we may have a second chance to recover this and other very rare creatures.


Crafting a Solution

So, how do we garner support for listed species, including the ones "only a mother could love"? Teamwork is probably the most important tool we have at our disposal for overcoming the myriad of challenges facing species' recovery. Working in cooperation with a variety of partners that may have differing views, goals, and timelines is challenging at times. But a diversity of voices, ideas, knowledge, and experience also provides many benefits, as the partners bring their own strengths to the table. The Service's unique role continues to be coordinating and facilitating the efforts of many entities to achieve the common goal of recovering our nation's imperiled flora and fauna.


(1) Candidates are those species for which we have enough information to list as threatened or endangered, but are precluded from doing so by higher priority workload.

(2) The Commonwealth is an island group in the western Pacific that is in political union with the U.S. and is therefore covered under the ESA.

Michelle Morgan is in the Washington Office Endangered Species Program and is Chief of the Branch of Recovery and Delisting (WO-BRD). Krishna Gifford, Elena Babij, Debby, Crouse, Kelly Hornaday, and Mary Klee are biologists in the WO-BRD. Martha Balis-Larsen also worked in the WO-BRD, but is now the WO Chief of the Office of Program support.
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Article Details
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Author:Morgan, Michelle; Gifford, Krishna; Babij, Elena; Crouse, Debby; Hornaday, Kelly; Klee, Mary; Balis-
Publication:Endangered Species Update
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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