Study Reveals Secret Benefactors of the Endangered Species Act

A wide range of species has profited from the law, even though they're not protected by it.
A swift fox and cubs. (Photo: James Hager/Getty Images)
Oct 6, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

What do the greater sage grouse, the swift fox, and the mountain plover have in common?

According to a new report from the Sand County Foundation, a Madison, Wisconsin, nonprofit, these are just a few of the species that have benefited from the Endangered Species Act even though they are not technically protected by the law.

The sage grouse typifies this, according to foundation president Kevin McAleese. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently decided not to list the bird under the ESA, saying that ranchers and oil companies had taken enough steps to protect the species in the wild. Although many conservation groups criticized the decision, McAleese said it’s an example of private landowners coming together and investing in conservation in a very short period of time to great effect.

He called this a sort of “leverage” that can be created by the ESA before a species truly needs the act’s protection. “Leverage is people coming together with a common concern and a common goal,” he said. Bringing together private landowners, state and federal government agencies, businesses, and tribal interests along these common, voluntary goals, creates what he called “a multiplier effect, where you’ve got people cooperating, sharing each other’s strengths, and growing in the same direction for the recovery of a species, a suite of species, or better yet an ecosystem.”

The foundation’s report highlights several examples of this, including the swift fox, which avoided the need for ESA protection in the 1990s after the Blackfeet Nation partnered with Defenders of Wildlife and the Cochrane Ecological Institute to reintroduce the species in Montana and boost its numbers in the wild.

Another example cited in the report was a small grassland bird called the mountain plover, which in 1999 was being considered for endangered species protection. That year a Colorado rancher found the birds on his land and feared that protected status would create too much red tape for his operation. Instead he embraced the birds and created a local festival to celebrate them. This and the work of other ranchers later allowed wildlife officials to decide the plover did not need ESA protection.

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McAleese said the report shows that the ESA isn’t something for private landowners to fear and also that taking action early can cost less and help species before it becomes too late. “If we get out in front of species before they become critically rare, the job of recovering them is a lot easier, cheaper, and can happen faster,” he said.

Other conservation groups expressed worry that this approach might not be enough to protect species in the long run.

“In recent years, the Fish and Wildlife Service has been using an impending listing to work out conservation agreements, including for sage grouse, Montana grayling, and dunes sagebrush lizard,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Although these agreements have in some cases resulted in actions to benefit species, these actions have in general not been enough to secure species, and we're likely to see many of these species need further protection in the future.”

He noted that the Endangered Species Act “provides concrete protections and has proven 99 percent successful at saving species from extinction.”

Still, McAleese said the report provides examples of some wins. “We wanted to share them as guideposts for how we might move forward more productively, affordably, and with greater success,” he said.