Yet another thing driving species to extinction: bureaucracy

When the queue gets stucked
When the queue gets stucked
Image: AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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Government proceedings can run for many years and can become a bureaucratic nightmare for those involved. For humans, awaiting official responses to important requests can be nerve-racking and even financially devastating, but for endangered species, waiting too long in the line can be lethal.

There are two ways for a species to become listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, the US’s most powerful environmental law. If the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) initiates protection for a species, the ESA’s decision has to be made within one year according to an amendment of the Act in 1982. If someone else files the petition, the FWS by law has to make sure the petition is “justifiable”—which can make the listing deadline stretch out up to two years, plus an additional one month between the listing and when protection comes into force.

However, a new analysis published recently in Biological Conservation found the reality is that most species wait much longer—12 years, on average. Often it takes a conservation organization filing a lawsuit to get neglected species listed.

A team of researchers analyzed 1,338 species eventually listed endangered under the Act between 1973 and 2014, and found that not every animal seems to have equal chance in the eyes of officials. The study found that vertebrates—mammals, birds, and reptiles—got their protection status quicker than insects, snails, and other invertebrate species. But plants had it worst, waiting an average of 14.2 years to get listed. Some had to wait as long as 37 years for the ESA’s mercy.

The FWS has stated (pdf) these lengthy delays are mainly due to limited funds, which can reduce staff available to handle the bureaucratic paperwork cascade coming with listing requests.

But to the study, the odds of a species being listed can be influenced by a number of factors:

  • available funding
  • the ESA’s actual policy in a given year (determined by amendments or administrative policy)
  • the presence (or lack of) environment friendly politicians
  • the president at the time—Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, for example, both halted the listing of hundreds of species

When a species does make the ESA list, it’s a helluva lot more likely to survive. The law empowers US federal government to keep the listed species safe from trade, protect their habitat, order the launching of conservation programs, and fund recovery plans. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, 99% of the 1,400 species listed between 1973 and 2013 were saved from extinction. But delays seems to be devastating. Just between 1973 and 1995, previous research found that 42 species waiting to be listed went extinct during the long processing time.