Fair Funding for Endangered Species

The successful recovery of certain listed species shows that adequate budgets are the key to saving our most vulnerable creatures

  • Roger Di Silvestro
  • Aug 01, 2007

THE COLUMBIAN white-tailed deer once ranged from Washington's Puget Sound into southern Oregon and from the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The westernmost of 38 subspecies of the Virginia white-tailed deer, it probably numbered in the tens of thousands prior to European settlement of the Pacific Northwest. By the 1900s, unrestricted hunting and clearing of its habitat for farming had reduced the deer to fewer than 400 animals. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in 1967 listed the subspecies as endangered.

Today the Columbian white-tailed deer survives in two distinct populations separated by about 200 miles of unsuitable habitat. Thanks to recovery work under the Endangered Species Act, one of these populations now numbers 5,000 to 6,000 individuals and was delisted in 2003. "Its recovery was based in part on hunting restrictions and on local ordinances designed to protect the deer, but probably the key to success was acquisition and management of important habitat, which speeds recovery by allowing wildlife managers to make decisions focused directly on a target species," says John Kostyack, NWF's director of Wildlife Conservation Campaigns. "To acquire such lands takes money."

Funding for this deer subspecies from all government sources amounts to about $110,000 a year, according to the FWS fiscal year 2004 report to Congress (the most recent available). "That level of funding is tiny in the vast scheme of the federal budget," Kostyack says, "but it was enough in 2004 to rank the deer number 298 from the top in recovery funding out of 1,311 listed species. To ensure that recovery for the remaining listed Columbian deer population, which numbers fewer than 800 individuals and for other vulnerable plants and animals succeeds, we need funding that allows FWS to move nimbly to acquire habitat and take other needed management measures."

For more than three decades, the federal Endangered Species Act has served as America's safety net for wildlife, saving hundreds of species from extinction and putting hundreds more on the road to recovery while safeguarding the habitats upon which they depend. "Programs conducted under the act have been 99 percent successful in achieving the law's primary goal of preventing extinctions," says Kostyack. "Of the more than 1,300 listed U.S. species, the majority are near recovery, benefit from protected habitat or survive in populations now stabilized or increasing."

But while some species recover, others are failing. The reason, according to a recent NWF report on endangered species management called Fair Funding for Wildlife, is inadequate funding. "FWS, the lead federal agency for endangered species protection, is understaffed, overburdened and financially strapped," says Corry Westbrook, legislative representative for NWF's Wildlife Conservation Program.

The success of the Endangered Species Act in saving species from extinction is apparent in such well-known examples as gray wolves and grizzly bears in the The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and bald eagles nationally, all of which are on the verge of being delisted in the light of successful recovery. However, the recovery of an array of other, less-known species also testifies to the success of the act in ensuring that America maintains its wildlife treasury. "Too often, politicians and the media have focused attention on the few controversies surrounding endangered species protection rather than on the many achievements of the act," says James Schroeder, senior environmental policy specialist at NWF's Western Natural Resources Center in Seattle, Washington. "The reality is that every day, progress is being made with species like the Columbian white-tailed deer." 

Consider the wood stork, a large wading bird native to the Southeast. The species' U.S. breeding population declined from an estimated 20,000 pairs in the 1930s to about 10,000 pairs by 1960. FWS in 1984 listed the bird as endangered. Between 1978 and into the 1990s, fewer than 5,000 pairs bred each year, a trend that, had it continued, would have put the U.S. breeding population near extinction by 2000. Biologists believe the decline was due primarily to loss of suitable feeding habitat, especially in South Florida rookeries, where feeding areas had decreased by about 35 percent since 1900 due to human alteration of wetlands. Careful protection of the birds and their habitat seems to be reversing the decline, however. In 2006, surveys tallied 11,223 nesting pairs, the first year since the 1960s in which biologists located more than 11,000 pairs. If the current trend persists, the bird could be delisted in the near future.

Funding from all government sources for wood stork recovery ranked the species number 95 out of 1,311 species, according to the FWS fiscal year 2004 report. Total wood stork recovery funding from all government sources that year was about $1.2 million. "The wood stork's high rank in funding correlates with its successful management," Kostyack says.

Another endangered species showing positive recovery results is the piping plover, a shorebird found in coastal areas across the nation. Recreational and commercial development have damaged nesting areas along the Atlantic Coast, where FWS in 1986 listed the species as threatened. Measures to counteract such threats seem to be helping, however. FWS estimates of breeding pairs along the Atlantic Coast indicated a 10.5 percent increase between 2001 and 2002. More recent surveys suggest that these gains have remained stable, according to a biologist working with the species. As with the wood stork, the piping plover ranks high in funding from all government sources relative to other listed species—number 58 out of 1,311 species. Total recovery funding for piping plovers outside the Great Lakes area—where the species is listed as endangered—from all state and federal sources in fiscal year 2004 was about $3.5 million.

Adequate funding also helps clarify species status and the need for listing. Survival of the valley elderberry longhorn beetle has been challenged by habitat loss along rivers in California's Central Valley, according to an FWS report on beetle recovery released last September. This inch-long beetle is found only in California's Central Valley, from southern Shasta County south to Fresno County in the San Joaquin Valley. There it is dependent on elderberry shrubs, on which both adults and larvae feed.

Between 1900 and 1990, agriculture and urban development claimed 96 percent of the southern portion of the Central Valley's river-related, or riparian, habitat, 84 percent of the mid valley's and 80 percent of the northern valley's. Loss of riparian habitat has slowed during the past 25 years, in part because of protections provided for the beetle and other species listed under the Endangered Species Act, a benefit for all wildlife dependent on such habitat.

When FWS listed this species as threatened in 1980, biologists found it at fewer than 10 locations along the America River, Putah Creek and Merced River in the Central Valley. Recent surveys have discovered it at 190 sites—the result of improved monitoring rather than of a recognized change in beetle numbers. These surveys recently led FWS to recommend delisting.

Money from all government sources for valley elderberry longhorn beetle recovery work ranks the insect number 87 out of 1,311 listed species. Total recovery funding for the beetle from all government sources in fiscal year 2004 was about $1.5 million. 

The level of funding for any given species is not necessarily a perfect predictor of success for the recovery of individual populations of a listed species. For example, political and economic issues have undermined Chinook salmon recovery in the Northwest even though the fish is the most heavily funded of all listed species, with more than $160 million spent on it from all government sources in fiscal year 2004. Moreover, even relatively high funding may fail to provide all the needed resources. In New York and New England, a bat measuring only about 3 inches long from nose to tail tip illustrates this point. The Indiana bat is one of 45 bat species in the United States and one of nine in New York and Vermont. During winter it hibernates in caves and abandoned mines from Mississippi and Arkansas north to the Great Lakes and east into Vermont. Since the 1960s, the population has dropped from about 800,000 nationwide to about 390,000, primarily because of changes at winter hibernating sites. Even in such depleted numbers, the bats account for millions of flying insects, eating about 25 percent of their body weight nightly. FWS in 1967 listed the species as endangered.

New York State is home to about 42,000 hibernating Indiana bats. New research has established that, unlike Indiana bats in other parts of the country—which in summer disperse widely from their wintering sites—those in New York go to specific summer roost sites. For example, thousands of bats from New York cross Lake Champlain in summer to roost in trees in Vermont's Champlain Valley.

The research that revealed these details is essential to understanding the local needs of this bat population and to protecting it properly. Throughout most of the nation, FWS and state agencies have put management emphasis on protecting sites used in winter, but the new information in the Northeast ensures that protection there also will focus on finding and evaluating summer roost sites. However, the research on the northeastern Indiana bats is not a by-product of the funding provided for the species' recovery. This funding, from all government sources nationwide, ranks the species number 42 out of 1,311 species, with total recovery funding from all government sources for fiscal year 2004 at about $4.9 million. 

Despite the high rank, the budget leaves a lot to be desired, according to sources familiar with bat recovery. Of the sum spent on bats in fiscal year 2004, only $1 million came from the FWS budget, and most of the money went into protecting the species' Midwest population centers. FWS did not earmark any money for the work on summer roosts in the Northeast. Research on New York's Indiana bats was accomplished because researchers cobbled together adequate funds, personnel and equipment from a variety of sources, including New York state wildlife grants, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, and a U.S. Geological Survey grant that bankrolled two years of research. Ham radio operators also volunteered to help track the bats, and more volunteers helped with tagging and studying the bats.

What was true for bat funding was equally true for the wood stork budget. Of the $1.2 million total, only $450,000 came from FWS, and it was used mainly for monitoring. Only $496,000 of the $3.5 million spent on the piping plover came from FWS, and only $131,768 of the $1.5 million spent on the beetle—barely 10 percent—was FWS funding.

FWS is not, as one agency official familiar with funding put it, "a money bag" for endangered species work. Much of the funding for individual species recovery comes from other agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. All federal agencies have a legal obligation under the Endangered Species Act to conserve and recover listed species, though they often fall short on this responsibility. These agencies, as one biologist explained, often see their obligation as limited only to maintaining, rather than restoring, endangered species. "If all federal agencies correctly implemented the act—while working with FWS, which has the scientific and technical expertise—wildlife would be doing a lot better in this country," Westbrook says. "Providing FWS with stronger funding would increase the efficiency of this process."

Moreover, the FWS budget has not been expanding as rapidly as has the need for endangered species work. For example, under the terms of the Endangered Species Act, FWS is required to consult with agencies and businesses engaged in federally funded projects that might harm listed species. Since 2000, requests for consultations have doubled, Westbrook says, but the budget for consultations has risen only 30 percent. "This lack of funding slows the whole consultation process, which in turn frustrates business interests, turning them against the Endangered Species Act," Westbrook says.

The need for funding is made even more urgent by the looming threat of global warming, the NWF report says. "Global warming will not only make recovery harder for currently listed species, but will also push new populations of species toward extinction," Schroeder says. "Success in protecting vulnerable species depends on a combination of reducing global warming pollution and redoubling endangered species management efforts." 

The two federal agencies responsible for implementing the act—FWS for terrestrial animals and for sea turtles on land and NOAA Fisheries for marine species and for sea turtles in the ocean—received $407 million for endangered species work during the current fiscal year. According to the NWF report, FWS and NOAA Fisheries would be able to meet their endangered species responsibilities if Congress provided the two agencies with $470 million in endangered species funding for fiscal year 2008 and increased the budget over the next five years to $693 million. The fiscal year 2008 figure amounts to about $1.59 per American, roughly the cost of a cup of coffee, according to the NWF report.

Despite the relatively small sum NWF is seeking, the battle for more funding is uphill. "Elected officials with ties to business have sought to undercut and underfund the endangered species program for years," Kostyack says. "One of those individuals, former U.S. senator and Idaho governor Dirk Kempthorne, is now the secretary of the Interior, the agency that houses FWS. His budget requests are not likely to strengthen endangered species protection."

And yet, funding for endangered species is an investment in America's future, Kostyack says. For example, measures that FWS and other agencies take for piping plover recovery help a host of other species that use the same habitat, including the northeastern beach tiger beetle, loggerhead sea turtle and seabeach amaranth, all federally listed as threatened.

Protecting habitat also benefits people by helping to protect ecosystems that recharge groundwater, filter drinking water, prevent erosion and flooding, provide habitat to commercially important fish and shellfish and support tourism industries. "Healthy wildlife populations mean healthy rivers, lakes, grasslands, beaches and forests," Kostyack says. "For people, this means a healthier and safer environment. Success in getting Congress to provide better funding for listed species translates into a better America."

Senior Editor Roger Di Silvestro has been reporting on endangered species issues for more than 25 years.

NWF in Action

Saving Species

In addition to seeking increased funding for threatened and endangered species, NWF and its affiliates are working across the nation for vulnerable species and their habitat in other capacities. Recent efforts include:

A leaked Department of the Interior draft of new regulations outlining ways to weaken endangered species regulations recently came to light. NWF is ensuring that the public and media are aware of this development and that no regulations are implemented without input from citizens, Congress or scientific experts.

NWF is backing passage of the Endangered Species Recovery Act of 2007 in the Senate and its counterpart in the House of Representatives. These bills dedicate up to $400 million in tax credits annually to owners of private land where threatened and endangered species live, offering tax breaks for those who take voluntary measures to aid species recovery. The bills also provide a tax deduction for the cost of recovery plan implementation and a tax exclusion for payments received under various cost-share conservation programs.

NWF also is working to protect wolves, bald eagles, northern flying squirrels and other species as they progress through various federal listing processes. Learn what NWF is doing to help Endangered Species.

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