Alanna Madden

(CN) — When it comes to environmental conservation, it’s easy to champion the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as the save-all solution to protecting imperiled species. However, new research published Wednesday suggests the U.S. is not protecting enough species in a timely manner.

Led by Erich Eberhard of Columbia University, the study finds that despite representing the strongest law in the U.S. for preventing species extinction, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which is responsible for implementing the ESA, is starved for resources.

“As a result, we are very slow to give species the protections they deserve, typically waiting until they’re extremely rare and at an extreme risk of extinction,” Eberhard told CNS. “And then when the species are listed, the Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t being provided with the resources it needs to recover them.”

The study is not a dig at Fish and Wildlife, which was unable to comment on the study before press time. In fact, Eberhard explained that when it comes to the Endangered Species Act’s first goal of preventing extinctions, it’s largely successful.

“Many species are recovering, having rates specified in their recovery plan,” Eberhard said.

Instead, the study — published in the peer-reviewed, open access journal PLOS ONE — focuses on the shortcomings of the law’s other goal, which is to get species to the point where they no longer need protection. Part of what researchers found was that the increase of imperiled species outpaced the agency’s budget, leaving it to do more with less and to begin conservation efforts at bleak starting points.

Between 2000 and 2009, for example, the median wait time for listing threatened or endangered species under the law was 9.1 years. The time limit set by Congress is about two years. But during this time, FWS also received the greatest influx of petitions, while the budget per species steadily decreased.

“Concurrently, the number of species listed for protected under the ESA increased by over 300% between 1985-2020,” Eberhard wrote. “As such, resource management appropriations, when measured on a per species basis, have dropped by nearly 50% since 1985. Our data suggests that inadequate funding has persisted for decades, with no clear relationship as to which political party is in power.”

As such, many species are not receiving protection until populations have reached dangerously low levels. Yet, the delay is not just a consequence of underfunding, it’s also a matter of agency process.

“We suspect that most of the species listed since 1993 had fallen to low population levels well before the time span of our study, a reflection of past anthropogenic activities,” Eberhard wrote. “Their protection under the ESA implies a painfully slow process of clearing a backlog of rare but unprotected species as opposed to a failure to respond to recent, rapid population declines in formerly more common species.”

The finding is similar to that of another 2015 study co-written by Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which explained the Service’s process of listing endangered species, and why it generates a backlog of species awaiting protection.

When a listing petition is filed by a third party, the Service has up to two years and one month to decide whether a species needs protection. But during that timeline, there are three rounds of committee decisions that determine eligibility, one of which can classify a species as “warranted but precluded” – meaning protection is warranted but not possible because another species is a higher priority.

According to Greenwald, the designation was meant to be a limited exception to the Act’s strict timeline. However, the agency’s practice of using the designation liberally contributes to the backlog of species awaiting listing decisions.

Should the FWS find a species needs listing, its third round of decisions involves issuing a proposed rule, opening a comment period and issuing a final rule to list a species or withdraw it from consideration. Yet, if there’s a scientific dispute, the agency can extend the process for six months, but it’s not the only delaying factor.

Political interferences also happen, Greenwald says, which might account for why FWS doesn’t often initiate listings on its own — a process that only takes one year.

“They’re constantly worried that there’s going to be backlash to listing a species, and then maybe Congress will step in and undermine the Endangered Species Act,” said Greenwald, noting how certain protections can impede vested interests like oil production. “That fear is really real to them, so they often don’t list species that clearly need to be listed.”

Or, as noted by Eberhard apart from the study, the former administration made several moves that conservationists considered efforts to weaken the ESA. The most significant, Eberhard explained, was an alteration to the definition of “critical habitat,” which narrowed the definition in a way that made it more difficult to reserve lands previously considered essential to species recovery. The Biden Administration has since revoked these changes.

Litigation is another contributing factor to why it could take longer for species to be listed, as organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity sue the government when it denies a listing or places a species on the consideration list too long.

According to Greenwald, the Center’s lawsuits have contributed to listing over 700 species over the years, and Eberhard’s research makes a similar note, stating how the majority of the recent listings are the result of a petition or lawsuit. However, his research does not address political factors contributing to listing delays, only that funding for the Service’s resources has decreased regardless of political party.

At the end of the day, Eberhard hopes international leaders will use research like his to use the Endangered Species Act as a template for how to create “an ambitious, visionary framework to provide biodiversity conservation around the world in the coming decade” and to learn from its mistakes.

To that note, Eberhard said, “the functional implementation of that framework is going to depend on in part on a serious investment of resources by the parties.”