The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declared today “Endangered Species Day.” The irony of dedicating one day on the calendar to species conservation is that every day is endangered species day if you operate an irrigation project; own a farm, ranch, or timberland in dedicated critical habitat; want to build homes for people to inhabit, or a road for them to travel. Or take pictures of whales.
An endangered species awareness day is also a self-serving opportunity for the Fish and Wildlife Service to spin its accomplishments while ignoring its inability to implement the actual Endangered Species Act. The Service promotes a few species recovery accomplishments, but sweeps its history of failure to perform status reviews, or delist based on completed status reviews, under the rug.
PLF recently concluded a decade of litigation resulting in the recommended, proposed, or completed delisting or downlisting of at least 20 species in California and Oregon. In every case, the Service had failed to carry out a legally mandated five year review of the species. After being forced to complete the reviews by PLF litigation, the Service recommended listing changes for a couple of dozen species, but then failed to act on its own recommendations. After multiple additional petitions and lawsuits by PLF, the Service finally followed its own recommendations for 11 species, leading to 6 proposed or completed delistings and 5 proposed downlistings.
For context, the Service reports that only 59 species have ever been removed from the list of endangered and threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Two of these were originally prompted by PLF’s status review lawsuit. If the four remaining proposed delistings are completed, this PLF action alone will have been responsible for roughly 10% of all species removed from the endangered species list.
This percentage becomes more significant after a closer look at the Service’s list. Of the 59 species delisted since the Act took effect, 18 (30%) were removed because of errors in the original listing, while only 31 (53%) were removed due to recovery. Some of these recovered species are in other countries, with the Service contributing little or nothing to their recovery. The remaining 10 species were delisted due to extinction. An act of Congress that imposes human hardship on the scale of the ESA should have more to show for it.
With this dismal track record, you would think that the Service would jump at the opportunity to delist or downlist when its own research shows that to be warranted. But instead, the Service usually shelves its status reviews with no action, unless we step in and force the agency to act on its own advice. So, while the Service takes its “victory” lap on Endangered Species Day, it would behoove the agency to acknowledge that the rest of us live with the ESA’s limits on property and freedom every day.