Categorized | Imperiled Wildlife

Recovery priorities for endangered species explained

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a complicated job in managing the conservation and recovery of more than 1,300 U.S. species protected under the Endangered Species Act.  In 1983, they established a priority system, to help them make choices on where to invest in developing recovery plans and implementing those plans – and to provide transparency to the public on those choices.

The system has 36 ranks for wildlife and plant species and uses the following nested variables to sort through species:

  • Degree of threat: Species are assigned to either a high, moderate or low degree of threat.  High means that extinction is almost certain in the immediate future because of population decline or habitat destruction.  ‘Moderate’ means extinction is not immediately likely to occur if investments in recovery are temporarily delayed.
  • Recovery potential: Species are assigned one of two categories – high or low recovery potential.  ‘High’ potential for success are species with threats and biology well-understood and recovery actions that are either not intensive or are actions that have been used before and have a high probability of success.
  • Taxonomy:  The most genetically distinct species receive a higher priority.
  • Conflict:  Because of 1982 amendments to the ESA, species which are in conflict with construction, development or other economic activities are meant to be a higher priority for the agency.

The system works like this:

Table with examples of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's recovery priority system

In practice, there is little evidence that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses this system in deciding which recovery plans to implement and which actions to fund.  This 2008 report to Congress provides the latest information on the priority ranks of each species.  In 2005, the Government Accountability Office concluded in a report that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not have a process to measure the extent to which funding is aligned with this and other priority systems.

This post was written by:

- who has written 17 posts on dotWild.

Tim Male is Vice President for Conservation at Defenders of Wildlife. Tim directs a number of Defenders’ conservation policy programs, including Habitat and Highways, Conservation Planning, Federal Lands, Oregon Biodiversity Partnership, and Economics.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.