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

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Abstract and Figures

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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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:
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 | 999
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... However, reviews of other conservation planning documents have found disconnects between managers' understanding of climate changerelated risks to conservation and the inclusion of potential adaptation strategies or actions in plans (Fontaine, 2011;Delach et al., 2019;Hoeppner & Hughes, 2019). These gaps may result in conservation efforts that fall short of conservation goals (c.f., Delach et al., 2019). ...
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The practice of conservation occurs within complex socioecological systems fraught with challenges that require transparent, defensible, and often socially engaged project planning and management. Planning and decision support frameworks are designed to help conservation practitioners increase planning rigor, project accountability, stakeholder participation, transparency in decisions, and learning. We describe and contrast five common frameworks within the context of six fundamental questions (why, who, what, where, when, how) at each of three planning stages of adaptive management (project scoping, operational planning, learning). We demonstrate that decision support frameworks provide varied and extensive tools for conservation planning and management. However, using any framework in isolation risks diminishing potential benefits since no one framework covers the full spectrum of potential conservation planning and decision challenges. We describe two case studies that have effectively deployed tools from across conservation frameworks to improve conservation actions and outcomes. Attention to the critical questions for conservation project planning should allow practitioners to operate within any framework and adapt tools to suit their specific management context. We call on conservation researchers and practitioners to regularly use decision support tools as standard practice for framing both practice and research.
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Climate change vulnerability assessments are commonly used to identify species at risk from global climate change, but the wide range of methodologies available makes it difficult for end users, such as conservation practitioners or policymakers, to decide which method to use as a basis for decision-making. In this study, we evaluate whether different assessments consistently assign species to the same risk categories and whether any of the existing methodologies perform well at identifying climate-threatened species. We compare the outputs of 12 climate change vulnerability assessment methodologies, using both real and simulated species, and validate the methods using historic data for British birds and butterflies (i.e. using historical data to assign risks and more recent data for validation). Our results show that the different vulnerability assessment methods are not consistent with one another; different risk categories are assigned for both the real and simulated sets of species. Validation of the different vulnerability assessments suggests that methods incorporating historic trend data into the assessment perform best at predicting distribution trends in subsequent time periods. This study demonstrates that climate change vulnerability assessments should not be used interchangeably due to the poor overall agreement between methods when considering the same species. The results of our validation provide more support for the use of trend-based rather than purely trait-based approaches, although further validation will be required as data become available.
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The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has succeeded in shielding hundreds of species from extinction and improving species recovery over time. However, recovery for most species officially protected by the ESA - i.e., listed species-has been harder to achieve than initially envisioned. Threats to species are persistent and pervasive, funding has been insufficient, the distribution of money among listed species is highly uneven, and at least 10 times more species than are actually listed probably qualify for listing. Moreover, many listed species will require ongoing management for the foreseeable future to protect them from persistent threats. Climate change will exacerbate this problem and increase both species risk and management uncertainty, requiring more intensive and controversial management strategies to prevent species from going extinct.
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There is a strong political divide on climate change in the US general public, with Liberals and Democrats expressing greater belief in and concern about climate change than Conservatives and Republicans. Recent studies find a similar though less pronounced divide in other countries. Its leadership in international climate policy making warrants extending this line of research to the European Union (EU). The extent of a left–right ideological divide on climate change views is examined via Eurobarometer survey data on the publics of 25 EU countries before the 2008 global financial crisis, the 2009 ‘climategate’ controversy and COP-15 in Copenhagen, and an increase in organized climate change denial campaigns. Citizens on the left consistently reported stronger belief in climate change and support for action to mitigate it than did citizens on the right in 14 Western European countries. There was no such ideological divide in 11 former Communist countries, likely due to the low political salience of climate change and the differing meaning of left–right identification in these countries.
Listing endangered and threatened species under the US Endangered Species Act is presumed to offer a defense against extinction and a solution to achieve recovery of imperiled populations, but only if effective conservation action ensues after listing occurs. The amount of government funding available for species protection and recovery is one of the best predictors of successful recovery; however, government spending is both insufficient and highly disproportionate among groups of species, and there is significant discrepancy between proposed and actualized budgets across species. In light of an increasing list of imperiled species requiring evaluation and protection, an explicit approach to allocating recovery funds is urgently needed. Here I provide a formal decision-theoretic approach focusing on return on investment as an objective and a transparent mechanism to achieve the desired recovery goals. I found that less than 25% of the $1.21 billion/year needed for implementing recovery plans for 1,125 species is actually allocated to recovery. Spending in excess of the recommended recovery budget does not necessarily translate into better conservation outcomes. Rather, elimination of only the budget surplus for "costly yet futile" recovery plans can provide sufficient funding to erase funding deficits for more than 180 species. Triage by budget compression provides better funding for a larger sample of species, and a larger sample of adequately funded recovery plans should produce better outcomes even if by chance. Sharpening our focus on deliberate decision making offers the potential to achieve desired outcomes in avoiding extinction for Endangered Species Act-listed species.