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Act Has Not Performed Its Mission

Friday, April 21; 1:14 pm
By Rep. Richard Pombo,
Special to Roll Call


Has the Endangered Species Act of 1973 become outdated and ineffective? For aficionados of the endangered locoweed - no, of course it has not. To the more cerebral, however, the facts speak for themselves.

In short, after more than three decades of implementation and billions of taxpayer dollars, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports to Congress that only 10 - or less than 1 percent - of the act's roughly 1,300 species have been recovered. Of those that remain under its care, just 6 percent are classified as improving, and a staggering 70 percent are classified as either "in decline" or of "unknown" status. Almost 80 percent of listed species only have achieved somewhere between zero and 25 percent of their recovery objectives. Critical habitat designations, though still required by law, do next to nothing to help species, but they consume massive sums of conservation resources through rampant predatory lawsuits.

All of the above amounts to an endangered species program the U.S. Office of Management and Budget assesses as "Not Performing," an understatement even in Washington, D.C., bureaucracy-speak. The findings in a recent Government Accountability Office report on the endangered species recovery program illustrate the magnitude of this dysfunction.

The GAO took a statistically significant sample of recovery plans (107 plans covering about 200 species) and reviewed them to see if they contained several key elements. The results were disheartening. Only five recovery plans addressed all of the factors that are considered when the agencies determine whether a species is endangered, only 19 percent of the plans had an estimate of what it would cost to recover the species, and only 32 percent provided an estimate of how long it would take.

Worse still, the estimated costs or estimated recovery dates (for the minority of plans that had them) do not appear to track with reality. Of the species covered by the plans that did have an estimated recovery date, the dates have come and gone, and not one single species in the study sample has even been proposed for delisting.

One species, the Maguire daisy, changed from endangered to threatened (downlisted), but not because of any success with the ESA. Studies indicated that it was, in fact, no different from other daisies and actually was quite widespread and abundant. In Washington parlance, this is called a "taxonomic revision." People outside the Beltway call this a mistake. Either way, the ESA has been rife with them.

The population of Johnston's frankenia, a Texas plant, was believed to consist of some 15,000 specimens. Researchers quit posting their surveys when they had determined there were likely more than 9,000,000. Not surprisingly, "erroneous data" is the No. 1 reason cited by the FWS for removing species from the list, not recovery.

In fact, of all the species included in the GAO's review of recovery plans with actual recovery projections, only four are considered "improving." But two, the Cumberland sandwort and Virginia sneezeweed, are classified as such because of mistakes - the discovery of additional populations.

Each mistake and faulty plan in the ESA draws money from other species that truly are in need. Just issuing a proposed rule to list a species costs somewhere between $75,000 and $125,000. Then there is the final rule and requirements to designate critical habitats, which are far more expensive processes.

At the same time, some claim the many shortcomings of the ESA are attributable to inadequate funding. But once again, the data does not agree. The recovery plan for the decurrent false aster (a plant), for example, anticipated its recovery by 1997 at a cost of $58,000. In 2006, the FWS announced that it will review this species' status, having spent more than 800 percent of what it originally projected. Similarly, the recovery plan for the least tern (a bird) anticipated that the species could be recovered by 2005, at a cost of $1.75 million to $2 million. Least tern expenditures by fiscal 2004 exceeded $23 million.

Those opposed to improving the ESA and its abysmal record bemoan such analysis, claiming it is unfair, that recovery takes time, and that because many listed species have not gone extinct, the ESA really has worked. It is true that some species are more secure today (bald eagle, peregrine falcon and brown pelican) than in the past, but the credit - or most of it - does not necessarily lay with the ESA. It lies with factors unrelated to the ESA, such as the ban on DDT or the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1945, which made it illegal to hunt the birds. And while recovery does take time, one would hope that after 33 years and 1,300 species we would have a little more to crow about. The key is that failing to plan is planning to fail in any endeavor, which is precisely what three decades of ESA implementation reveals.

These are just a few of the ESA's shortcomings, but they make understandable the OMB's assessment that the program is "not performing" and that "[i]t is difficult to determine whether the program, including regulated activities, is effective, achieving results, and maximizing net benefits." They are also just a few of the reasons that the House, with a strong bipartisan vote, passed H.R. 3824, the Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act.

TESRA provides many of the long-needed improvements - including eliminating the wasteful critical habitat provisions and requiring sound, comprehensive recovery plans, by a certain date, with strong data reporting and transparency requirements. The ESA must be refocused on recovery, and that it is not a one-way street for species. Ignoring the need to improve the ESA after three decades of failure is an unrecorded vote to continue to enable conservation failure.

Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) is chairman of the Resources Committee.





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