U.S. needs Robin Hood approach to saving endangered species, researcher argues

Steller sea lions.

Dave Bezaire/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

U.S. needs Robin Hood approach to saving endangered species, researcher argues

Bunched cory cacti bloom along the Texas border with Mexico, their violet flowers emerging in the summer. The species is listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), which means federal officials are required to come up with a so-called recovery plan for nursing the plant back to health. But the cactus recovery effort is getting just 2% of the funding that officials estimate it needs for success.

In contrast, a few flashier listed species—including the steller sea lion and the desert bighorn sheep—are getting bigger recovery budgets than recommended, reports a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

That discrepancy is hobbling U.S. efforts to save vulnerable species, says the author, who argues the nation would get a bigger bang from its endangered species spending by shifting money from overfunded to underfunded species.

“As conservation scientists, the existing paradigm is we should save everything,” says Leah Gerber, an ecologist at Arizona State University, Tempe. But with humans drastically affecting the planet’s biodiversity, she says “we really do have to make choices.”

Together, recovery plans for the 1125 species listed under the ESA call for the government to spend $1.21 billion annually. But Congress typically allots just 25% of that total, leaving many recovery plans underfunded. More than 100 plans, for example, get less than 10% of their proposed budgets. Other species, however, get more money than their plan calls for, as a result of factors including political pressure, partnerships with other nonfederal funders, past funding, or lawsuit settlements.  But the extra money hasn’t always meant the plans are successful.

To see whether there might be a better way to allocate resources, Gerber decided to examine the return that the government was getting from its investment in conservation. She waded through recovery plans and reports to Congress, determining how species are faring and how much money two U.S. agencies—the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service—spent on them between 1980 and 2014. She then put the species into four categories:

  • Cost-effective (fully funded, populations increasing);
  • Costly success (overfunded, populations increasing);
  • Injurious neglect (underfunded, populations declining); and
  • Costly failure (overfunded, populations declining).

Overall, she calculated that if the agencies took $17 million annually from 50 “costly failures” and moved it to species suffering from “injurious neglect,” they could meet the funding goals for 182 species.

Not everyone will agree with her analysis or proposed solution, Gerber concedes, particularly people who oversee well-funded recovery plans. But “we can achieve a lot more by doing something that seems to make a lot of sense,” she says. “Let’s just take that surplus and we could save more than 180 species. That’s low-hanging fruit.”

Andrew Dobson, an ecologist at Princeton University who was not involved in the study, says the research highlights the need to discuss how we allocate conservation funding. The results “show there could be significant modifications in the way money is spent,” he says.

At the same, he says it highlights the overall shortage of funding to protect biodiversity. “My worry is, because we cut the budget so short, we are essentially spending all our time rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” he says. “The bottom line is we really actually need to invest more money in this.”