Biodiversity: Can a federal rule change slow the tidal wave of species extinctions?

USFWS proposes to revamp endangered species listing process

Endangered manatees at a Florida wildlife refuge @bberwyn photo.

By Bob Berwyn

In the age of climate change, rampant consumption and development, plants and animals are going extinct faster than ever before in the history of the planet — so fast that the Endangered Species listing process in the U.S. has been overwhelmed.

Now, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to revise the way it determines whether rare plants and animals deserve listing under the Endangered Species Act. In the proposal posted Jan. 15 in the Federal Register, the agency wants to set up five prioritization categories:

1: Highest Priority: Critically Imperiled – Species that appear to be critically imperiled and in need of immediate action.

2: Strong Data Available on Species’ Status – Species for which we have existing strong scientific data supporting a clear decision on status.

3: New Science Underway to Inform Key Uncertainties – Species for which important emerging science on their status is underway to answer key questions that may influence the petition finding; uncertainty about species’ status can be resolved in a reasonable timeframe.

4: Conservation Opportunities in Development or Underway – Species for which proactive conservation efforts by states, landowners, and stakeholders are underway or in development. The conservation efforts should be organized and likely to reduce the threats to the species.

5: Limited Data Currently Available – Species for which there is little information on status and threats available to inform a petition finding.

According to the agency, the changes will “reinforce collaboration between the Service and its partners and maximizing transparency throughout the decision-making process.” Read the full proposal and comment here.

“This methodology will help us strategically prioritize work on Endangered Species Act listing petitions to ensure the most urgent wildlife needs are addressed first, while also providing a common sense and defensible path to address all petitions,” said USFWS director Dan Ashe in a prepared statement.

To prioritize its current workload of status reviews and accompanying petition findings, the Service intends to place each pending petition finding in one of five priority categories or “bins.” Placement into these categories will be based on the evaluation of available biological data, threats to the species, conservation measures that can address those threats, and the existence of any new or developing science that can help inform the listing decision.

The resulting list of prioritized actions will be developed into a National Listing Workplan for the Service, to be shared with states and stakeholders and posted online. This workplan will be updated annually as new information is obtained.

In the workplan, the Service will set dates for when it will undertake status reviews and petition findings – using the new methodology to prioritize when it would make those decisions.

The policy would apply to species that have been petitioned by conservation groups or members of the public, which is the most common way for species to get on the list.

The USFWS faces a backlog of about 500 species that have been petitioned and thus already found to potentially warrant protection. There are many hundreds more species that have not been petitioned, but need the protections of the Endangered Species Act to have any chance at survival.

Until recently, hundreds of species known to need protection spent decades waiting for protection on a list of candidate species. Despite the mandates of the Endangered Species Act, Congress has consistently under-funded the agency, leaving it unable to address the tidal wave of extinctions.

One conservation group said the proposal would de-prioritize species where voluntary conservation efforts are underway or in development, which could leave some species dangling.

“We agree with prioritizing protection of known critically imperiled species and have worked with the Service and scientists over the years to do precisely that,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But delaying protection for plants or animals based on thin promises from states or others to provide protections is a recipe for extinction. This will be of particular concern when these species are also critically imperiled.”

“This is a half measure that will do nothing to speed protection for the many hundreds of species desperately in need of protection,” said Greenwald. “Instead, what is needed is more funding and the political backbone to systematically address the backlog of clearly imperiled species that remain unprotected and at risk of extinction.”

“What is needed is a systematic plan to identify all of our precious wildlife species that may need protection and provide that protection or determine it’s not needed,” Greenwald said. “Today’s proposal falls well short of such a plan.”

To learn more about the ESA petitioning and listing processes, please visit


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