Categorized | Imperiled Wildlife

Baca Bill to Delist Many Endangered Species

On March 11th, Representative Joe Baca, a California democrat, introduced a bill that would delist many species on the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  Under the bill, ESA protections for these species would automatically expire 15 years after their listing date.  This arbitrary deadline overrides the ESA’s science-based process for delisting species and might doom to extinction the many species that recover slowly.

Delhi Sands flower-loving fly. Copyright Joe Sartore.

The bill stems from many years of tension in southern California between conserving the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly and developing its last sliver of habitat.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the species as endangered in 1993, but has acquired very limited information on its population status.  This is because the animal is extremely cryptic and rare.  As a result, the Service has been unable to establish any criteria for delisting it from the ESA.

To Baca, continued listing is a burden.  But instead of working constructively with the Service to improve the status of the flower-loving fly so that it can be delisted properly, Baca has decided to circumvent the ESA’s delisting standards and eviscerate the law.  The bill amends section 4 of the ESA so that all “endangered” species must be considered extinct if they meet several conditions.  One is that the species is listed as “endangered” for 15 or more years.  A second is that the Service has not found a “substantial increase” in the species’ population during the 15 year period.  A third is that the species is a “limited listed species,” which means a species for which it is not reasonably possible to determine whether the species has been extirpated from its range at the time of listing because not “all individuals” of the species were identified at that time.

As an initial matter, it is important to understand some of the ambiguities in the bill, which would affect how broadly it could be applied.  One ambiguity is the requirement for a “substantial increase” in a species’ population, an undefined term.  Another ambiguity comes from the awkward definition of “limited listed species.”  As noted above, the definition refers to the need to identifying “all” individuals of a species at the time of listing.  This requirement seems meaningless because it is nearly impossible to count every individual at that time.

If the bill becomes law, it would have several key implications for conservation.  First, it would create an unrealistic burden of proof for continued protection of many species under the ESA.  The Service does not have enough information on many species to show a “substantial increase” in their populations—even if this increase has actually occurred.  The lack of information is largely attributable to the cryptic nature of many species and the inadequate resources devoted to monitoring and recovering species.  Even if the Service gains the capacity to monitor populations, 15 years is not enough time for many species to show a substantial improvement.  In the case of the flower-loving fly, over 97 percent of its suitable habitat has been destroyed by agricultural, residential, and commercial uses over the last two centuries.  Expecting substantial improvements in 15 years is unrealistic.  The bill exploits all of these weaknesses by creating a burden of proof for continued protection that may be impossible to satisfy for many species.

A second implication is that a species could become a “limited listed species” simply by shifting its range since the time of listing.  Shifts can happen for several reasons, including climate change, stochastic events, and habitat alteration.  For these shifting species, it may not be “reasonably possible” to determine whether they have been extirpated from their range at the time of listing.  As a result, the bill could consign the species to “extinction”—even if they clearly occupy areas outside of their range at the time of listing.

Third, while the flower-loving fly may be an uncharismatic species to some people, the bill would also delist many majestic species that garner greater public appeal.  Examples include the Gulf Coast jaguarundi, Alabama sturgeon, and White sturgeon, all of which the Service has very limited information on.

Alabama sturgeon. Copyright USGS.

Even if the bill does not become law, it raises several key issues about how the ESA has been implemented.  First is the lack of any delisting criteria in the flower-loving fly’s recovery plan.  This deficiency prevents the public from seeing “an end in sight,” contributing to the resentment that motivates anti-ESA legislation.  Second is that the flower-loving fly has not benefited from enough conservation measures.  This is largely a function of inadequate funding, a problem that surfaces with depressing regularity for most ESA species.  To the bill’s credit, it recognizes that simply stopping development is insufficient to recover the flower-loving fly, which also requires proactive recovery measures.  Third is the absence of monitoring and population data for the flower-loving fly.  This is not a problem limited to cryptic species; the Service does not have these data for many easier to detect species as well.  As we all examine ways to improve the ESA, we should be cognizant of these issues that are likely to inspire other efforts to undermine the world’s most comprehensive and effective law for protecting imperiled wildlife.

This post was written by:

- who has written 19 posts on dotWild.

Ya-Wei Li is the Senior Director of Endangered Species Conservation at Defenders of Wildlife.

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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.