Endangered Species Face 12-Year Wait to be Listed

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A new study in journal Biological Conservation uncovered that the average time it takes a species to be officially classified as endangered is 12 years, six times longer than scientists say it should be to promote the health and survival of these species.

When Congress first passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, the process for a species to be added to the “endangered” list entailed being labelled as endangered or threatened by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1982 Congress added an amendment laying out an entire two-year timeline for the process, from a petition submission in favor of the species being added to a final rule being created in the Federal Register.

However, the reality is a bit more complex. “While the law lays out a process time of two years for a species to be listed, what we found is that, in practice, it takes, on average, 12.1 years,” says Dr. Emily Puckett, a recent Division of Biological Sciences graduate at the University of Missouri. “Some species moved through the process in 6 months but some species, including many flowering plants, took 38 years to be listed—almost the entire history of the ESA.”

The study analyzed the length of time it took for the 1,338 species listed for ESA protection between January 1974 and October 2014 to move through the listing process. Researchers also examined if a species grouping affected the speed with which it was listed, and found that vertebrates moved on to the list significantly more quickly than did flowering plants and invertebrates. This finding prompted the study’s authors to conclude there may be a bias in the listing process that undermines the ESA’s official listing policies. “While the [US Fish and Wildlife] Service can account for species groups in its prioritization system, it’s not supposed to be mammals versus insects versus ferns but, rather, how unique is this species within all of the ecological system,” Puckett says. “However, our findings suggest some bias that skews the process toward vertebrates.”

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Long delays in ESA listing have real and severe impacts on endangered species. In fact, the study’s authors cited documentation of several species that went extinct while the lengthy process unfolded. In contrast, species that were listed quickly and had strong conservation plans put in place had greater chances to recover and thrive. For instance, the island night lizard took a mere 1.19 years to be listed, while the prairie fringed orchid took 14.7 years to be listed. In the meantime, the lizard population has been restored and it has been removed from endangered status, while the orchid is still a threatened species.

“The whole point of putting species on the list is they already have been identified as threatened or endangered with extinction,” Puckett says. “Without being on the list, we run the risk that these populations will go locally or globally extinct and there will be nothing to save.”

Sossamon, Jeff. “”Endangered Species Wait 12 Years to Get on the List.” Futurity. 12 August 2016.

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