The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is one of the strongest environmental statutes in our nation – and the world – but it cannot protect a species that is not formally listed under the law. But a loophole in the ESA listing process delayed protection for years for hundreds of imperiled species.
After reviewing a species for listing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) (which has authority over land-based species) has three options: propose the species for “threatened” or “endangered” status; declare the species doesn’t warrant listing; or announce the species deserves to be listed, but can’t be proposed due to other, higher priority actions (“warranted but precluded”). Species found to be “warranted but precluded” are placed on the candidate list, where they may wait indefinitely without ESA protection. Such delays can have tragic effects: candidates have gone extinct while awaiting listing.
In 2011, more than 250 species were on the candidate list, and more than 80 percent of them were first recognized to warrant listing more than ten years before that. Some species lingered on the candidate list for decades: for example, more than 50 plants petitioned by the Smithsonian Institute in 1975 were still stuck on the candidate list, without ESA protection.
The “higher priority listing actions” that prevented candidate listing were often delayed as well. Under George W. Bush, species listings reached a new and enduring low. In one year (2007), no new listings occurred, and other years’ listings averaged less than 10. There was also clear evidence of political interference in the ESA listing program under President Bush, and Congress held multiple hearings on the issue. The listing program under President Obama was also generally slow. In 2009, only two species were added to the list. In 2010, 53 species were added to the list, but most of those (50) were in just one state: Hawai’i.
FWS cited a lack of funds as their rationale for failing to list candidate species. However, FWS and the Interior Department routinely asked for the ESA listing program to be underfunded. Despite acknowledging since 2003 that at least $153 million is needed to address the backlog of candidates, the listing budget allocation averaged less than $10 million annually between 2003-2010. The amount requested has generally tracked the amount Congress has allocated.
Historic Milestone. On May 10, 2011, WildEarth Guardians entered into an historic and sweeping settlement agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The settlement resolved years of litigation and shifted the way endangered species were added to the threatened and endangered species list. It ended years of waiting for species on the candidate list: animals and plants that both the Service and WildEarth Guardians agree need the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
Endangered Species Act Listing. We also advocate for imperiled species that don’t yet have any status under the Endangered Species Act. Many of the species that have been added to the ESA candidate list were petitioned by Guardians during 2010: International Year of Biodiversity.