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Agency plans are inadequate to conserve US endangered species under climate change

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Despite widespread evidence of climate change as a threat to biodiversity, it is unclear whether government policies and agencies are adequately addressing this threat to species. Here we evaluate species sensitivity, a component of climate change vulnerability, and whether climate change is discussed as a threat in planning for climate-related management action in official documents from 1973 to 2018 for all 459 US animals listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. We find that 99.8% of species are sensitive to one or more of eight sensitivity factors, but agencies consider climate change as a threat to only 64% of species and plan management actions for only 18% of species. Agencies are more likely to plan actions for species sensitive to more factors, but such planning has declined since 2016. Results highlight the gap between climate change sensitivity and the attention from agencies charged with conserving endangered species.
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https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-019-0620-8
1Landscape Conservation, Defenders of Wildlife, Washington, DC, USA. 2Field Conservation, Defenders of Wildlife, Seattle, WA, USA. 3Center for
Conservation Innovation, Defenders of Wildlife, Washington, DC, USA. 4Present address: Union of Concerned Scientists, Washington, DC, USA.
5Present address: Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, CA, USA. 6Present address: Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Commonwealth of
Massachusetts, Boston, MA, USA. 7Present address: Wildlife Habitat Council, Silver Spring, MD, USA. *e-mail: adelach@defenders.org
Climate change is a threat to ecosystems and biodiversity glob-
ally1,2 and has emerged as a driver of observed and potential
species decline and extinction35. Government laws and poli-
cies should play a vital role in supporting climate change adapta-
tion for imperilled species, yet imperilled species protections have
been critiqued as insufficient in Australia6,7, Canada8 and Europe9.
Funding shortfalls for environmental programmes mean that
govern ments may not be adequately addressing baseline threats to
species10,11, let alone more complex emerging threats from climate
change1215. Furthermore, the politicization of climate change in
many countries, including the United States, has led to different lev-
els of concern and action on the topic among political parties16,17.
Understanding whether and to what extent government authorities
are supporting climate change adaptation, especially for imper-
illed species, is critical for improving tools and processes to reduce
climate change impacts on biodiversity18,19.
The primary law directing the conservation of imperilled
species in the United States is the Endangered Species Act20 (ESA).
Central to the listing and recovery processes under the ESA is the
enumeration and abatement of threats to species. The law directs
the secretaries of the Interior and Commerce to use the “best avail-
able scientific and commercial data” to make listing determinations
on the basis of five threat factors: (1) habitat destruction and degra-
dation, (2) overutilization, (3) disease or predation, (4) inadequacy
of existing protections or (5) other factors. While each factor may
result from or be exacerbated by climate change, this threat is not
explicitly described among the five factors. This is likely because
the ESA was most recently amended legislatively in 198821, the same
year as the formation of the IPCC and 4 yr before the first detailed
discussion of the consequences of climate change for biological
diversity in the United States22.
Nonetheless, the two agencies responsible for implementing
the ESA, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National
Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), have explicitly recognized the
threat that climate change poses to species and the need to man-
age for its impacts. The FWS first described climate change as
a threat in its January 2007 proposal to list the polar bear (Ursus
maritimus) as threatened. Later that year, discussion of climate
change appeared in recovery plans for the Indiana bat (Myotis soda-
lis) and Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi) and in 5 yr
reviews for the red wolf (Canis rufus) and five sea turtle species (for
references to species ESA documents, see the link in data avail-
ability). The only assessment of climate change in ESA documents
to date (to our knowledge) found that by the end of 2008, 87% of
species recovery plans still did not address whether climate change
was a threat18. The scientific community has identified climate
change as the ‘primary threat’ to nearly 40% of ESA-listed animals
and over 50% of ESA-listed plants in the United States10, and agency
options for climate-related management action under the ESA have
been available for over a decade23. Thus, it is vital to understand
whether the lead agencies responsible for endangered species con-
servation have improved the use of their authority to help species
adapt to the threat of climate change.
To determine whether threats from climate change are being
addressed by US agencies, we compared the climate change sensi-
tivity of species with agencies’ discussion of climate change and
plans for managing climate change threats for the 459 ESA-listed
endangered animals found within US lands and waters. Because
climate change sensitivity had not been systematically assessed for
many of these species, we developed a trait-based climate change
sensitivity assessment24. This assessment is a simplified version of
existing tools (Methods) and provides a preliminary evaluation
of whether and which species’ life history and biological charac-
teristics contribute to sensitivity to climate change (see Table 1).
We focused on sensitivity (and related traits sometimes character-
ized as measures of adaptive capacity) because these, rather than
Agency plans are inadequate to conserve US
endangered species under climate change
Aimee Delach 1*, Astrid Caldas 1,4, Kiel M. Edson 1,5, Robb Krehbiel2, Sarah Murray 1,
Kathleen A. Theoharides1,6, Lauren J. Vorhees 1,7, Jacob W. Malcom 3, Mark N. Salvo1 and
Jennifer R. B. Miller 3
Despite widespread evidence of climate change as a threat to biodiversity, it is unclear whether government policies and agen-
cies are adequately addressing this threat to species. Here we evaluate species sensitivity, a component of climate change
vulnerability, and whether climate change is discussed as a threat in planning for climate-related management action in official
documents from 1973 to 2018 for all 459 US animals listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. We find that
99.8% of species are sensitive to one or more of eight sensitivity factors, but agencies consider climate change as a threat to
only 64% of species and plan management actions for only 18% of species. Agencies are more likely to plan actions for species
sensitive to more factors, but such planning has declined since 2016. Results highlight the gap between climate change sensi-
tivity and the attention from agencies charged with conserving endangered species.
NATURE CLIMATE CHANGE | VOL 9 | DECEMBER 2019 | 999–1004 | www.nature.com/natureclimatechange 999
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