Postcard from the edge. The Florida panther remains in grave danger.

Cherished Conservation Efforts Faltering

Scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) thought they had finally won a measure of respect after adopting two major revisions to their conservation strategy--setting aside more habitat and designing recovery plans for multiple species. Now a study suggests that the changes have not helped matters. The finding questions the effectiveness of ambitious plans under way to protect the Florida Everglades and other high-profile ecosystems.

The FWS has suffered slings and arrows before. Of the roughly 1000 species listed in the United States as endangered, only 13--including the American peregrine falcon and the American alligator--have rebounded enough to warrant removal from the list. Sympathetic voices blame litigation that siphons away FWS time and money, but critics deride the agency's grip on current science.

The new study, published in the June issue of Ecological Applications, is the culmination of a sweeping review of protection strategy begun in 1998 by the FWS and the Society for Conservation Biology. The project involved more than 300 people at 19 universities. An army of students led by ecologist P. Dee Boersma of the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, pored over 136 recovery plans--FWS's blueprints for endangered species under its jurisdiction.

The resulting analysis lauds the FWS for steadily improving its use of science, but casts doubt on the value of two recent innovations. The first is recovery planning that targets many species at once. The analysis revealed that species in such plans are more likely to be in decline than those in custom-built plans. Second, the study questions the usefulness of "critical habitat," a designation the Endangered Species Act provides to protect a beleaguered species's home range. Lawsuits forced the FWS to make more designations last year, bleeding time and money from the listing of new species. And for little if any gain: The study concludes that critical habitat designation does not correlate with better data on the habitat or improved measures to preserve it. Some biologists say that's because the designation offers no protection beyond what's provided by other parts of the act.

Jamie Clark, FWS director from 1997 to 2001, says the "thoughtful and incisive" study should help the agency shape its efforts, which she thinks should still include multispecies planning and critical habitat designation. But with FWS operating in crisis mode, the key to success will be to "slow down the fire hose of everything else that's happening at FWS long enough to focus on science."

Related sites
Overview of the study
Study abstracts
FWS overview of endangered species