Endangered Species:

Time and Costs Required to Recover Species Are Largely Unknown

GAO-06-463R: Published: Apr 6, 2006. Publicly Released: Apr 6, 2006.

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The Endangered Species Act of 1973 protects species facing extinction (endangered species) or likely to face extinction (threatened species) and the ecosystems upon which they depend. The act has long been a lightning rod for political debate about the extent to which the nation's natural resources should be protected and how best to protect them. Implementation of the act has also been the subject of numerous lawsuits that have consumed significant program resources. Since the act's inception, about 1,300 domestic species have been placed on the list of threatened and endangered species. Supporters of the act claim it is an indication of the act's success that only 9 of these species have gone extinct; particularly, since by the time they are listed species, they are often in critical condition. Critics, on the other hand, counter that it is an indication of the act's failure that only 17 of these species have "recovered," or improved to the point that they no longer need the act's protection. However, we believe that these numbers, by themselves, are not a good gauge of the act's success or failure; additional information on when, if at all, a species can be expected to fully recover and be removed from the list would provide needed context for a fair evaluation of the act's performance. Similarly, estimates of the total costs to recover the species would be necessary to evaluate whether sufficient resources have been devoted to recovery efforts. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), collectively referred to as "the services," are the federal agencies responsible for ensuring implementation of the Endangered Species Act. The act generally requires the services to develop and implement recovery plans for the conservation and survival of endangered and threatened species. As of January 2006, the services had finalized and approved 558 recovery plans covering 1,049 species, or about 82 percent of the 1,272 endangered or threatened species protected in the United States. Proposed amendments to the Endangered Species Act are under consideration, and Congress has asked us to provide information on the recovery plans themselves and the progress made on their implementation to help facilitate this effort. To address these issues, for a randomly selected sample of 107 recovery plans, we identified the extent to which plans included (1) overall time and cost estimates to recover species and (2) the three key elements set forth in the 1988 amendment. We determined the plans' time and cost estimates and the extent to which they contain the key elements based on information contained in the plans. We also conducted work on a group of 30 selected species to determine the factors affecting the length of recovery and the role that recovery plans have played in the species' progress toward recovery. On February 8, 2006, we briefed Congressional staff on our findings relating to our work addressing the 107 recovery plans. At Congressional request, we are transmitting with this report the briefing slides that summarized our observations

Of the 107 plans we reviewed, 73 plans do not provide estimates of when the species are expected to be recovered and 87 plans do not provide estimates of the total cost to recover the species. When such estimates are included, they vary widely. Of the 34 plans that provide a time estimate, 7 plans indicate that the species were expected to have been recovered by 2005; the remaining plans indicate that the species are expected to be recovered within the next 50 years. Twenty of the 107 plans include cost estimates. These plans have an average cost estimate for recovery of $15.9 million and a median cost estimate of $1.4 million. The highest estimate is $125 million to recover the Whooping crane and the lowest is $58,000 to recover the Decurrent false aster--a flowering plant in Illinois and Missouri. While both FWS and NMFS guidance documents discuss including overall time and cost estimates for achieving recovery in recovery plans, we found that most plans only included time and costs estimates for implementing recovery actions for just a 5- to 7-year period. FWS and NMFS recovery program officials told us that many plans do not include overall time and cost estimates because of the difficulty in developing precise estimates due to many uncertainties, such as the availability and willingness of partners to aid in recovery efforts and the uncertainty of biological responses to recovery actions. Officials also said, however, that it would be possible to develop broad estimates for most species. NMFS officials said that they anticipate that recovery plans will include overall cost estimates for recovery, in accordance with their recently issued guidance. Almost all of the 107 recovery plans we reviewed have two of the three key elements identified in the act, but few include the third element. First, we found that all of the plans we reviewed include site-specific management actions, although the level of specificity varies greatly. Some plans contain many detailed actions; while others contain fewer, higher level actions. In instances where little is known about the species, the focus of site-specific management actions is often on research and data gathering. Second, almost all of the 107 plans we reviewed include time and cost estimates for implementing site-specific management actions; 4 plans did not contain this information, but stated that doing so was not practicable. In contrast, only 5 of the 107 plans we reviewed included the third element--recovery criteria that address all five delisting factors. Twenty-three plans either state why providing recovery criteria was not practicable or indicate that the species is thought to be extinct or not recoverable. An additional 57 plans include some recovery criteria but do not evidence consideration of all five delisting factors. The remaining 22 plans do not include any recovery criteria for delisting and do not state why providing such criteria was not practicable.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To meet the Endangered Species Act's requirement that recovery plans, to the maximum extent practicable, include recovery criteria and, to not expose the services to a higher-than-necessary risk of litigation and their attendant costs, the Secretaries of the Interior and Commerce should direct the services to include in recovery planning guidance, direction that all new and revised recovery plans have either recovery criteria evidencing consideration of all five delisting factors or a statement regarding why it is not practicable to do so.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our April 2006 report "Endangered Species: Time and Costs Required to Recover Species are Largely Unknown," we found that although the Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires that the services including the Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to incorporate measurable criteria for removing species and that the courts have found that the ESA requires FWS to address five delisting factors in designing recovery criteria, most plans did not include all of these factors. We recommended that FWS include in recovery planning guidance direction that all new and revised recovery plans have either recovery criteria evidencing consideration of all five delisting factors or a statement why it is not practical to do so. Based on GAO's recommendation, in January 2008, FWS issued a memorandum to its regional offices directing the recovery plans to include evidence that all five delisting factors were considered and state if a factor is not considered a threat to the species.

    Recommendation: To facilitate measuring the success of the Endangered Species Act and provide policy makers with valuable information for identifying resource needs, the Secretaries of the Interior and Commerce should direct the services to report estimates of the time and cost needed to recover species in a single location that is easily accessible by Congress and the public, (e.g., in the biennial recovery reports to Congress). To accomplish this task, the Secretaries of the Interior and Commerce should ensure that the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, respectively, implement their current recovery planning guidance when drafting or revising recovery plans so that plans routinely estimate the overall time and cost to recover species.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our April 2006 report "Endangered Species: Time and Costs Required to Recover Species are Largely Unknown," we found that although the Endangered Species Act requires and Department of Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) guidance states that recovery plans should include time and cost estimates for recovery, most recovery plans did not. We recommended that (1) NMFS implement their current recovery planning guidance when drafting or revising recovery plans so that plans routinely estimate the overall time and cost to recovery species; and (2) services report this information in a single location (e.g., in the biennial recovery reports to Congress). In response, (1) in May 2006, NMFS issued a memorandum reiterating that estimates of the overall time and cost to recover species be included in all new and revised recovery plans; and (2) the "Report to Congress on the Recovery of Threatened and Endangered Species, Fiscal Years 2005-2006", included time and cost estimates for species for which recovery plans contain such estimates.

    Recommendation: To facilitate measuring the success of the Endangered Species Act and provide policy makers with valuable information for identifying resource needs, the Secretaries of the Interior and Commerce should direct the services to report estimates of the time and cost needed to recover species in a single location that is easily accessible by Congress and the public, (e.g., in the biennial recovery reports to Congress). To accomplish this task, the Secretaries of the Interior and Commerce should ensure that the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, respectively, implement their current recovery planning guidance when drafting or revising recovery plans so that plans routinely estimate the overall time and cost to recover species.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our April 2006 report "Endangered Species: Time and Costs Required to Recover Species are Largely Unknown," we found that although the Endangered Species Act required and the Department of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) guidance states that recovery plans must include total time and cost estimates for recovery, most recovery plans do not include all of these factors. We recommended (1) that FWS implement their current recovery planning guidance when drafting or revising recovery plans so that plans routinely estimate the overall time and cost to recovery species; and (2)that the services report this information in a single location (e.g., in the biennial recovery reports to Congress). In response (1) in January 2008, FWS issued a memorandum to its regional offices reiterating the need to routinely estimate the overall time and cost to recover species in all new and revised recovery plans, and (2) the "Report to Congress on the Recovery of Threatened and Endangered Species, Fiscal Years 2005-2006", included time and cost estimates for species for which recovery plans contain such estimates.

    Recommendation: To meet the Endangered Species Act's requirement that recovery plans, to the maximum extent practicable, include recovery criteria and, to not expose the services to a higher-than-necessary risk of litigation and their attendant costs, the Secretaries of the Interior and Commerce should direct the services to include in recovery planning guidance, direction that all new and revised recovery plans have either recovery criteria evidencing consideration of all five delisting factors or a statement regarding why it is not practicable to do so.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our April 2006 report "Endangered Species: Time and Costs Required to Recover Species are Largely Unknown," we found that although the Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires that the services including the Department of Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to incorporate measurable criteria for removing species and that the courts have found that the ESA requires the services to address five delisting factors in designing recovery criteria, most plans did not include the factors. We recommended that NMFS include in recovery planning guidance direction that all new and revised recovery plans have either recovery criteria or a statement why it is not practical to do so. In response to our recommendation, in May 2006, NMFS revised its interim guidance and issued a memorandum directing that the recovery plans include evidence that all five delisting factors were considered and state if a factor is not considered a threat to the species.

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