Endangered Species Protections Could Be Starting Too Late, According to Study

by Taylor Cunningham
(Photo by Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A new study published in the journal PLoS ONE suggests that by the time endangered species are given protection by the federal government—it’s too late.

To complete the study, which was published on Oct. 12, researchers evaluated 970 cases involving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the past 30 years. And they found that the service kept species on the waiting list for protection much longer than the act proposes. By the time animals are officially listed as threatened or endangered, their populations are too small to rebound.

“Since it was passed in 1973, the Environmental Species Act has served as an inspiration and model for conservation policy,” said Columbia University doctoral student Erich Eberhardand, who helped author the research. “Our analysis suggests its strength is being undercut by listing too late with too small populations and too little funding.” 

The Endangered Species Act Has Saved Most Listed Species From Extinction

According to Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, FWS is only supposed to take up to two years to decide if an animal needs protection. But it almost always went over that time limit. And political party changes played no part in the issues.

Since the inception of the act, some animals have moved from endangered to threatened. But only 54 have completely recovered. Currently, more than 1,300 species are listed.

“If you wait until species are critically endangered, it’s that much harder to recover them,” said Greenwald. “And it makes recovery less likely and makes the choices that much harder. Species are slipping through the cracks.”

The study looked at data reported from 1993 to 2020, and it built on a previous study that covered cases from 1985 to 1992. The newest used the same methods as its predecessor.

While comparing the old and new research, the authors saw that the FWS has not sped up its timelines or become any more proactive than it was in the 80s.

But despite the grim findings, Greenwald does believe that the endangered species act has been tremendously successful in preventing extinction. While the act hasn’t helped to delist many animals, it has kept them from disappearing altogether.

“99% of species protected under the Endangered Species Act still survive, which is highly significant,” he added. “In a lot of ways, it is working. That’s despite underfunding, despite political interference, and despite what I would consider an inept agency in charge of implementing it.”