The majority of funding for endangered species in the United States is allocated to only a small number of species.
BILLINGS, Mont. —
In the past 50 years, the Endangered Species Act has resulted in the listing of over 1,700 species of plants, mammals, fish, insects, and other organisms in the U.S. as being at risk of extinction. However, government data shows significant discrepancies in funding for conservation efforts among different groups of species.
Approximately $1.2 billion is allocated annually towards the protection of endangered and threatened species, with around 50% of that budget directed specifically towards the preservation of salmon and steelhead trout on the West Coast. Other commonly recognized animals such as manatees, right whales, grizzly bears, and spotted owls receive tens of millions of dollars in funding as well.
However, the significant amounts of funding allocated to a select few species have resulted in neglect for others, leading them to potentially face extinction after years of being overlooked.
The smallest amount spent in 2020, according to the latest data, was on the Virginia fringed mountain snail. Only $100 was allocated for this subterranean snail, which has only been observed once in the last 35 years according to government records. Surprisingly, this species ranks higher than over 200 other endangered plants, animals, fish, and other creatures that received zero funding.
Due to the impact of climate change on organisms globally, the number of species eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act is increasing. However, government officials are facing challenges in implementing necessary recovery measures in accordance with the law.
Certain scientists propose reducing funding for expensive endeavors that may not be effective and redirecting those funds towards species with more affordable recovery plans that have been neglected.
Leah Gerber, a conservation science professor at Arizona State University, suggests that the amount of money allocated to protecting spotted owls could instead be used to preserve entire cacti species, which may not be as appealing but require much less funding.
A recent study by the Associated Press on data from 2020 revealed that 67% of the spending was allocated towards fish, primarily focused on salmon and steelhead populations in California, Oregon, and Washington. Mammals received 7% of the funding, while birds received about 5%. Insects and plants received a smaller portion of the money, with only 0.5% and 2%, respectively. However, this does not account for funds distributed among multiple species.
The stonefly species in Montana’s Glacier National Park and the California tiger salamander in Orlando, Florida are both facing threats from climate change and development. This includes the loss of habitat for the salamander due to the conversion of native land for theme parks and the decline of stoneflies due to changing environmental conditions.
The unequal distribution of funds has been an ongoing issue, influenced by both natural factors and political influences. The restoration of salmon and steelhead populations is a costly endeavor due to their extensive range and confinement by large hydroelectric dams. Additionally, there is a strong political backing for the restoration of these fisheries from Native American tribes and commercial fishing groups.
For many years, Congress has allocated large amounts of funding to agencies like the Bonneville Power Administration, which manage dams on rivers where fish used to migrate for spawning. This money is used for constructing fish ladders around the dams, restoring habitats, conducting scientific monitoring, and fulfilling other necessary tasks.
The majority of the species that are safeguarded by the Endangered Species Act are plants. However, when the law was established in 1973, the entire plant kingdom was nearly left out, as stated in the Congressional Record and confirmed by Faith Campbell, who conducted interviews with individuals involved in the creation of the bill for a 1988 study published in the Pace Environmental Law Review.
Initially, plants were excluded from the measure’s passage in the Senate due to opposition from influential Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska. However, they were eventually added back in at the last minute after botanists from the Smithsonian Institution and Lee Talbot, a senior scientist at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, advocated for their inclusion. According to Campbell, this was a result of their efforts.
During that period, botanists suggested that over 2,500 plant species were at risk of becoming extinct in the future. Unfortunately, many of these plants did not receive protection as federal officials did not take action before a Congressional deadline.
In 2020, over 900 types of trees, ferns, flowers, and other plant life were safeguarded and collectively received approximately $26 million.
According to Campbell, a former environmental activist now employed at the Center for Invasive Species Prevention, while their numbers may be increasing, these species are still not receiving their fair share of resources and attention compared to other species. Despite facing similar threats to animals, they lack the political influence of more popular and disruptive animal species.
Gerber and colleagues have found that many plants do not receive the recommended amount of funding outlined in their recovery plans. This has significant implications, as species are more likely to decline if they are not given sufficient financial support, but have a better chance of recovery if enough funds are allocated.
Gerber proposes reallocating funds away from species that are already exceeding their recovery goals, such as the bull trout, gopher tortoise, and Northern spotted owl, to those species that are not receiving sufficient funding. This proposal has faced opposition from certain conservation groups.
According to Jamie Rappaport Clark, a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, discussing how to distribute limited resources for saving endangered species is a diversion.
Clark, who is currently the president of Defenders of Wildlife, stated that the problem lies not in the allocation of funds, but rather in the insufficient amount of money being provided.
Gerber expressed her desire to prevent any species from becoming extinct, but acknowledged that a strategic approach is necessary due to limited resources.
“Regrettably, time is running out,” she stated. “We must act.”
Wildlife authorities are striving to achieve this goal through the allocation of funds for imperiled species in the climate legislation passed by President Joe Biden in 2020.
Officials stated that $62.5 million was allocated for hiring biologists to create recovery plans for 32 species, with the potential to expand to 300 in the future.
Some of the species include the candy darter, a vibrant fish found in rivers in the southeastern region of the United States, the marron bacora, a flowering shrub native to the Virgin Islands, the Panama City crayfish from Florida, and the pocket-sized Stephens’ kangaroo rat in southern California.
Officials state that the additional funds are meant to offer some respite as the environmental review team at the agency has decreased by 20% in the last twenty years, despite the addition of new species. Lindsay Rosa, Vice President of Conservation Research at Defenders of Wildlife, emphasizes the significance of increased funding since over half of the agency’s current recovery plans are over twenty years old.
The law also included a budget of $5.1 million for initiatives aimed at aiding numerous species from four categories that government officials have identified as being historically underfunded: plants in Hawaii and the Pacific islands, butterflies and moths, freshwater mussels, and desert fish in the southwestern United States.
“Each of these species are part of this larger web of life,” Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams said in an interview. “They’re all important.”