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Same law, diverging practice: Comparative analysis of Endangered Species Act consultations by two federal agencies


Abstract and Figures

Evaluating how wildlife conservation laws are implemented is critical for safeguarding biodiversity. Two agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service (FWS and NMFS; Services collectively), are responsible for implementing the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), which requires federal protection for threatened and endangered species. FWS and NMFS' comparable role for terrestrial and marine taxa, respectively, provides the opportunity to examine how implementation of the same law varies between agencies. We analyzed how the Services implement a core component of the ESA, section 7 consultations, by objectively assessing the contents of >120 consultations on sea turtle species against the requirements in the Services' consultation handbook, supplemented with in-person observations from Service biologists. Our results showed that NMFS consultations were 1.40 times as likely to have higher completeness scores than FWS consultations given the standard in the handbook. Consultations tiered from an FWS programmatic consultation inherited higher quality scores of generally more thorough pro-grammatic consultations, indicating that programmatic consultations could increase the quality of consultations while improving efficiency. Both agencies commonly neglected to account for the effects of previous consultations and the potential for compounded effects on species. From these results, we recommend actions that can improve quality of consultation , including the use of a single database to track and integrate previously authorized harm in new analyses and the careful but more widespread use of programmatic consultations. Our study reveals several critical shortfalls in the current process of conducting ESA section 7 consultations that the Services could address to better safeguard North America's most imperiled species.
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Same law, diverging practice: Comparative
analysis of Endangered Species Act
consultations by two federal agencies
Megan EvansenID
*, Ya-Wei Li
, Jacob Malcom
1Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology Graduate Program, College Park, MD, United States
of America, 2Center for Conservation Innovation, Defenders of Wildlife, Washington, DC, United States of
America, 3Environmental Policy Innovation Center, Washington, DC, United States of America
Evaluating how wildlife conservation laws are implemented is critical for safeguarding biodi-
versity. Two agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Ser-
vice (FWS and NMFS; Services collectively), are responsible for implementing the U.S.
Endangered Species Act (ESA), which requires federal protection for threatened and
endangered species. FWS and NMFS’ comparable role for terrestrial and marine taxa,
respectively, provides the opportunity to examine how implementation of the same law var-
ies between agencies. We analyzed how the Services implement a core component of the
ESA, section 7 consultations, by objectively assessing the contents of >120 consultations
on sea turtle species against the requirements in the Services’ consultation handbook, sup-
plemented with in-person observations from Service biologists. Our results showed that
NMFS consultations were 1.40 times as likely to have higher completeness scores than
FWS consultations given the standard in the handbook. Consultations tiered from an FWS
programmatic consultation inherited higher quality scores of generally more thorough pro-
grammatic consultations, indicating that programmatic consultations could increase the
quality of consultations while improving efficiency. Both agencies commonly neglected to
account for the effects of previous consultations and the potential for compounded effects
on species. From these results, we recommend actions that can improve quality of consulta-
tion, including the use of a single database to track and integrate previously authorized
harm in new analyses and the careful but more widespread use of programmatic consulta-
tions. Our study reveals several critical shortfalls in the current process of conducting ESA
section 7 consultations that the Services could address to better safeguard North America’s
most imperiled species.
1. Introduction
The U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) is considered one of the strongest wildlife laws in the
world [1]. Signed into law in 1973 by President Richard Nixon in response to rising concern
over the number of species threatened by extinction, the ESA protects over 1,650 U.S. species
by prohibiting negative impacts on species and their habitats and guiding the recovery of
PLOS ONE | March 20, 2020 1 / 18
Citation: Evansen M, Li Y-W, Malcom J (2020)
Same law, diverging practice: Comparative analysis
of Endangered Species Act consultations by two
federal agencies. PLoS ONE 15(3): e0230477.
Editor: Tarsila Seara, University of New Haven,
Received: October 4, 2019
Accepted: February 22, 2020
Published: March 20, 2020
Copyright: ©2020 Evansen et al. This is an open
access article distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution License, which
permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original
author and source are credited.
Data Availability Statement: All data files are
available from the OSF database (
Funding: The author(s) received no specific
funding for this work.
Competing interests: I have read the journal’s
policy and the authors of this manuscript have the
following competing interests:All authors were
affiliated with Defenders of Wildlife at the time
research was conducted. This does not alter our
adherence to PLOS ONE policies on sharing data
and materials.
populations [2]. Today, the ESA remains the primary piece of environmental legislation for
protecting imperiled species and recovering them to the point that the law’s protections are no
longer needed. With such a crucial role, the ESA must be implemented correctly. Yet agencies
often struggle with gaps in effective implementation as they face funding shortfalls and staff
limitations alongside a rising number of listed species. Although the ESA is a strong law, effec-
tive implementation in the face of these challenges is key. Taking advantage of opportunities
for improvement in efficiency and effectiveness is crucial if the ESA is to continue preventing
extinction and recovering species.
Section 7 of the ESA directs federal agencies to use their authorities to conserve listed spe-
cies and is a key aspect of the law’s strength. Under section 7(a) [2], federal agencies (“action
agency”) are instructed to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or the
National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) if any action authorized, funded, or carried out
may jeopardize listed endangered or threatened species or destroy or adversely modify species’
critical habitat (for definitions see Box 1, Glossary). If an action agency initially concludes that
the action is not likely to adversely affect species or their critical habitat, the agency must
request Service concurrence on its finding. If the Service concurs, the consultation is complete;
this assessment is classified as an “informal consultation.” Conversely, if an action is deemed
likely to adversely affect species or critical habitat, a “formal consultation” is initiated, and the
consulted Service will issue a biological opinion with their findings of the project’s impact on
imperiled species. FWS and NMFS share administration of the ESA, with NMFS generally
overseeing marine species and FWS managing terrestrial and freshwater species [3]. However,
both Services have authority over some listed species that cross jurisdictional boundaries, such
as sea turtles, and consult with action agencies on these joint-jurisdiction species. If done prop-
erly, consultations ensure that federal agency actions do not violate the jeopardy and adverse
modification prohibitions of the ESA, thereby minimizing negative effects on listed species.
The consultation process is guided by the Section 7 Handbook (hereafter, Handbook),
which was created by the Services to “promote efficiency and nationwide consistency [of con-
sultations] within and between the Services” [4]. The Handbook guides biologists to ensure
consultations are serving their purpose of adequately protecting listed species to the fullest
extent of the ESA and lays out a framework for what should be included in each section of a
biological opinion issued by the Service. However, the Handbook is a guidance document only
and does not prescribe all details of a consultation. This results in variation in consultation
completeness, which could become problematic if differences introduce inefficiencies or
inconsistencies that ultimately reduce the protection or conservation of imperiled species.
Two preliminary observations suggest consultation completeness may differ between the
Services in ways that reduce consultation effectiveness. First, recent analysis of data on all sec-
tion 7 consultations recorded by FWS from 2008–2015 [5] revealed discrepancies in the time
duration of consultations between the Services. Whereas the FWS completed 80% of formal
consultations within the 135-day time limit set by the Handbook (the proportion of on-time
consultations is likely higher because the data do not include information on legitimate
“pauses” during consultation; JWM and Y-WL, pers. obs.), NMFS completed only 30% in this
timeframe [6]. This discrepancy in timing could indicate a problem in the conservation pro-
cess if, for instance, FWS is compromising quality of the analyses for quantity in order to com-
plete its required number of consultations, which is substantially greater than NMFS despite
receiving similar levels of funding [7,8]. Second, based on the authors’ combined experience
of reading hundreds of consultation documents, we observed high variation in the general
completeness and consistency of consultation documents (authors, pers. obs.). Variation
appears to be structured (e.g., by species or office) rather than random, and especially large dif-
ferences occur between consultations produced by the two Services. There are numerous
Comparative analysis of Endangered Species Act consultations by two federal agencies
PLOS ONE | March 20, 2020 2 / 18
reasons why the FWS and NMFS could differ in their approach to or process for consultations.
For example, the two agencies have overlapping but not identical legal mandates; different
organizational histories and cultures; and receive different levels of funding, differences that
percolate across regions and offices within each Service [9]. Understanding the type and
degree of variation among consultations could help identify the cause and outcome of differ-
ences. That knowledge can in turn assist in designing solutions that minimize inconsistencies
and maximize quality of the consultation process to support the Services in enforcing the ESA.
Box 1. Glossary
Glossary of terms typically used to describe and discuss consultations under section 7(a)
(2) of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The exact legal and policy definitions can be
found in the referenced Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) and Handbook sections.
Action: All activities or programs of any kind authorized, funded, or carried out, in
whole or in part, by Federal agencies in the United States or upon the high seas.
Action agency: The federal agency proposing the action.
Biological opinion: The document resulting from formal consultation that describes the
proposed action, the Service evaluation of the effects of the action, the determination of
whether the species’ existence is jeopardized or its critical habitat is adversely modified,
and any conservation requirements for the action agency. [50CFR§402.02,
Critical habitat: The specific areas and habitats essential to conserving the species. Criti-
cal habitat may be designated in areas that are occupied or unoccupied at the time of list-
ing. Occupied habitat must also have “physical or biological features” that require special
management considerations or protection. [ESA§3(5) (A)]
Formal consultation: The type of detailed evaluation undertaken for federal actions that
are likely to adversely affect one or more ESA-listed species. [50CFR§402.02,
Informal consultation: The type of detailed evaluation undertaken for federal actions
that are not likely to adversely affect one or more ESA-listed species. [50CFR§402.02,
Jeopardy (to jeopardize): To engage in an action that reasonably would be expected,
directly or indirectly, to reduce appreciably the likelihood of both the survival and recov-
ery of a listed species in the wild by reducing the reproduction, numbers, or distribution
of that species. [50CFR§402.02]
Programmatic consultation: A consultation that addresses multiple actions taken by an
agency on a program, regional, or other basis. For example, programmatic consultations
may cover many different energy development projects within particular Bureau of
Land Management lands in a single, landscape-level evaluation. (Handbook, p. xvii)
Take: To harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to
attempt to engage in any such conduct [ESA§3(19)]
Comparative analysis of Endangered Species Act consultations by two federal agencies
PLOS ONE | March 20, 2020 3 / 18
Yet to our knowledge, there has never been a systematic analysis of differences in consultation
completeness, creating a knowledge gap with direct implications for biodiversity conservation
and environmental policy.
Here we quantify and evaluate variation in how the Services implement section 7 by com-
paring the completeness of consultation documents for threatened and endangered species of
sea turtles against the requirements of the Handbook. Sea turtles are one of the few taxa which
falls under the jurisdiction of both the FWS and NMFS, offering a unique opportunity for
direct comparison of consultation completeness. As we discuss further below, we expect con-
sultations that follow the requirements of the Handbook are more complete and more likely to
result in better conservation outcomes because the Handbook provides the best available
description of how to comply with section 7. Thus, we assess completeness of a consultation
under the assumption that a more complete document will lead to better conservation for the
species. In doing so, we take advantage of a natural experiment to analyze the differences in
how the Services implement the consultation process. While the null hypothesis may be equal-
ity of consultation document completeness, based on previous observations, we expect NMFS
consultations to more complete than FWS consultations. We report significant differences in
the completeness of both the formal and informal consultations between the Services. Our
results highlight several pathways by which the Services can systematically improve the com-
pleteness and quality of consultations to strengthen the ESA and improve the protection and
recovery of North America’s most imperiled species.
2. Methods
2.1 Sampling
The Services have carried out hundreds of thousands of consultations since the ESA was estab-
lished. Because consultations are often context-specific and can differ depending on specific
categories such as action type and species, fully random sampling of species was not suitable
for our objective. Following prior methods [10], we chose a defined subset of consultations to
make comparisons between the Services more direct and insightful. We controlled for extrane-
ous sources of variation by conducting our analysis on consultations from January 2008
through April 2015 and involving actions proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers (the
Corps) that could potentially impact sea turtles in Florida. This focus enabled us to minimize
confounding factors that might be introduced by the time period, type of action being evalu-
ated, or species natural history or geographic variation, and therefore to focus on differences
between the Services’ consultation process and output. Species of sea turtle were the most con-
sulted on by the Corps and included green sea turtle [Chelonia mydas], loggerhead sea turtle
[Caretta caretta], Kemp’s ridley sea turtle [Lepidochelys kempii], leatherback sea turtle [Dermo-
chelys coriacea], and hawksbill sea turtle [Eretmochelys imbricata].
2.2 Consultation selection
We obtained consultation data that met our sample criteria from several publicly available
databases. We accessed NMFS consultations using the Public Consultation Tracking System
(PCTS;, which allows users to directly
download consultations. FWS has a similar database of consultation records, the Tracking
And Integrated Logging System (TAILS). TAILS is designed to help coordinate record-keep-
ing between field and regional offices of FWS and does not provide the consultation docu-
ments. Instead, the TAILS database provides records of FWS consultations but has no public
interface, therefore we accessed TAILS records using the Section 7 Explorer web application
(; Malcom and Li 2015) that allows the public
Comparative analysis of Endangered Species Act consultations by two federal agencies
PLOS ONE | March 20, 2020 4 / 18
to search for consultations using TAILS data. Using PCTS and the Section 7 Explorer to iden-
tify the set of consultations involving the Corps and sea turtles, from which we randomly
selected 30 formal and 30 informal consultation records from each Service during the study
time period. We acquired the NMFS consultations directly from PCTS, while those from FWS
we acquired through FWS South Florida Field Office’s online document library for biological
opinions (
index.cfm) or through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. While evaluating the
original selection of NMFS formal consultations, we discovered some that did not assess sea
turtles in the biological opinion despite search parameters constrained to sea turtles. To
account for this discrepancy, we removed those not assessing sea turtles and randomly selected
an additional 10 formal NMFS consultations for evaluation from the PCTS database. All of the
consultations analyzed in this work are archived at Open Science Framework (OSF) under
2.3 Evaluation criteria
We recorded the start and end dates of the consultation, year completed, regional office filed
through, species of sea turtles, page length, and other general information for each consulta-
tion. All evaluated consultations and data are provided at OSF (
IO/KAJUQ). We developed different scoring methodologies for formal and informal consulta-
tions because each type involves different content as detailed in the Handbook. Scoring rubrics
are provided in S1 Appendix (formal consultations) and S2 Appendix (informal consulta-
tions). It was not feasible to blind scorers to the Service that wrote consultations because of the
nature of the documents; any familiarity with the consultation process makes the Service
immediately apparent. Therefore, reviewers were not blind to the Service when analyzing com-
pleteness. When there was any ambiguity as to the appropriate score, a second reviewer
(JWM) would read the consultation in question, then decide on the appropriate score with the
primary reviewer (ME).
For formal consultations, we selected the four core sections from the Handbook to score
the completeness of each biological opinion: “Status of the Species,” “Environmental Baseline,”
“Effects of the Action,” and “Cumulative Effects.” Although not an exhaustive list of biological
opinion sections, these four sections contain the bulk of the information and analysis of the
species and proposed action. The Status of the Species and Environmental Baseline sections
received a score from 0–5 and the Effects of the Action and Cumulative Effects sections were
given a score from 0–2 based on how well they met the specific requirements for that section
by the Handbook. Rating the completeness of these core sections of the biological opinion was
straightforward because the criteria described by the Handbook allowed for a simple present/
absent scoring system. For some analyses, these present/absent scores were summed for each
of the four core sections. We also calculated total completeness by summing the scores across
all four sections. The overall completeness was normalized by calculating the ratio of the
summed score to the total points possible for each consultation.
Scoring the informal consultations used a simpler rubric because informal consultation
documents are shorter, rarely have individual sections, and the Services generally do not pre-
scribe the required contents. We surveyed a selection of informal consultation documents
from both Services and considered what information Services personnel need in order to eval-
uate the effects of actions and monitor the action after consultation is complete. We identified
five criteria to evaluate the completeness of informal consultations: stating the action, analysis
of the action, analysis of the impacted species, stating the reason why the consultation stayed
informal and including a map of the area affected by the action. Though a map is not required
Comparative analysis of Endangered Species Act consultations by two federal agencies
PLOS ONE | March 20, 2020 5 / 18
by the Handbook, the action area is highly important for much of the consultation analysis,
and thus the inclusion or omission of a map was scored. These criteria were each assigned 1
point, for a total possible score of 5 points.
During preliminary work on this project we noticed the use of “sticker concurrences,” in
which the FWS South Florida Office recorded only a sticker of consent applied to the request
for concurrence provided to FWS (S1 Fig). This sticker of approval for the action was in lieu of
a complete informal consultation, and no additional consultation documentation was sup-
plied. Despite their lack of analysis, sticker concurrences were scored in the same manner as
all other informal consultations.
2.4 Statistical analyses
Our goal was to understand patterns and associations of variation in consultation complete-
ness. We used summary statistics (mean and standard deviation) and Pearson’s correlations to
describe patterns. To examine relationships between completeness and associated factors, we
used two modeling approaches: a binomial generalized linear model [GLM; 11] to identify pre-
dictors of the proportions of total possible points, and ordinal logistic regression [OLR; 12] to
analyze the individual component scores. We considered six variables that were most likely to
affect consultation completeness: the Service performing the consultation, whether the consul-
tation was formal or informal, the year the consultation took place, the species of sea turtle
assessed, the type of action assessed, and whether the consultation was part of a programmatic
consultation (see Glossary). We incorporated these variables into a global model (Model 1) of
all variables and eight additional subset candidate models for the analysis of overall complete-
ness using the GLM (Table 1). We also considered that the particular office within the Service
might be an important predictor of consultation completeness. However, given that our focus
is on the potential differences between the Services and that the offices are nested within the
Services, the office variable was not included in our candidate model set. Because of the funda-
mental differences between formal and informal consultations and the difference in total
Table 1. Candidate generalized linear and ordinal regression models for predicting overall consultation complete-
ness and conservation action specificity.
Model Type Model Num. Predictors
GLM Binom1 Service + Formal + Year + Action_type + Programmatic + total_duration
2 Service + Formal + Year + Programmatic + total_duration
3 Service + Formal + Year + Action_type + total_duration
4 Service + Formal + Year + total_duration
5 Service + Formal
6 Service
7 Formal
8 total_duration
9 Service + Formal + Programmatic + total_duration
Ord. regress.�� 1 Service + Year + (1|consultation_ID)
2 Service + (1|consultation_ID)
3 Year + (1|consultation_ID)
4 Programmatic
Binomial logistic generalized linear model.
�� Ordinal logistical regression.
��The notation “(1|var)” indicates a random effects variable.
Comparative analysis of Endangered Species Act consultations by two federal agencies
PLOS ONE | March 20, 2020 6 / 18
possible score, we calculated the response variable as the proportion of possible points for each
consultation. When we analyzed data separately for formal and informal consultations, we
used reduced candidate model sets by removing the informal consultation variable from for-
mal analyses and the formal and programmatic variables from the informal analyses.
We used a set of three candidate ordinal regression models (Table 1) with random effects
for the consultation document in which the components were nested. While programmatic
consultation was an important predictor of completeness in the overall analysis, the Hessian
was singular (presumably because of the lack of NMFS programmatic consultations) for the
components and we were not able to include programmatic as a variable in these analyses. We
therefore evaluated summary statistics to investigate the role of programmatic consultations in
shifting completeness scores. We used the R package ‘ordinal‘[13] to conduct ordinal regres-
sion. A univariate analysis was performed to identify predictor variables.
We carried out model selection [14] based on Akaike’s Information Criterion adjusted for
small sample sizes (AIC
) using the AICcmodavg package [15]. We considered models with
>2.0 as having strong support [14]. All analyses were done in R 3.3 [16] and are avail-
able as a package vignette in the project’s OSF repository (
2.5 Consultation process
To supplement data gathered from the consultation documents, one of the authors (ME) dis-
cussed the consultation process with one biologist from NMFS and six biologists from FWS
who consulted on sea turtles in Florida. These biologists were on the list of Service personnel
who worked directly on the consultations evaluated for this study and were selected based on
availability. Information collected on the consultation process was not meant to be representa-
tive of a larger sample but was instead intended to provide further insight into results. Biolo-
gists were asked about the consultation process concurrent with our scoring of the
consultations (in August 2015) at the agency offices in Florida. The questions were based on
our understanding of the Handbook and preliminary examination of the consultations we
reviewed. We asked biologists about their opinions on the consultation process and how well
consultations serve the intended purpose (S3 Appendix). We then coded answers into catego-
ries of similar themes. All biologists were spoken to under the condition of anonymity and
with full awareness of the agencies. Informed consent was obtained from all participants.
Although the sample size is too small for statistical analysis, we reviewed and scored the notes
on the consultation process from the biologists to summarize recurring themes.
3. Results
We retrieved, read, and scored 55 consultations produced by FWS (30 formal and 25 informal)
and 68 consultations produced by NMFS (38 formal and 30 informal) for a total of 123 consul-
tations. Consultations assessed the effects of the action on seven species on average (Table 2).
Formal consultations ranged in length from 1 to 120 pages and required over a year to com-
plete on average. Of the core completeness sections evaluated, ‘Status of the Species’ was by far
the longest, with an average of 19 pages. This section often contained lengthy content that was
neither relevant to the species’ life history in the geographic area of the action nor to the effects
of the action. In our random sample of FWS informal consultations, only one featured the
sticker concurrence that we observed in the preliminary work.
Comparative analysis of Endangered Species Act consultations by two federal agencies
PLOS ONE | March 20, 2020 7 / 18
3.1 Overall consultation completeness
Generalized linear modeling suggested that consultation completeness was best explained by
Model 9, which showed the lowest AIC
= ~2; Table 3). This model, which included all
predictors except action type and year, indicated that a consultation done by NMFS was 1.40
times (95% CI = 1.25–1.57; Fig 1A) as likely to receive a higher score for completeness as a con-
sultation done by FWS. FWS’s programmatic consultations provided a significant complete-
ness boost (OR = 1.35; 95% CI = 1.17–1.56), but formal consultations were about as likely
(OR = 1.0; 95% CI = 0.89–1.13; Fig 1B) to score higher as informal consultations (Table 4).
The duration of consultations was positively associated with overall completeness in a univari-
ate GLM (r= 0.20; p= 1.04e
) but did not rank as an important variable in the multivariate
analysis. Similarly, the section length in pages was also correlated with completeness in a uni-
variate analysis (r = 0.2, p= 0.0037). However, after accounting for the Service performing the
Table 2. Summary statistics across all 123 formal and informal consultations.
Consultation type Variable Mean Min Max SD N
Formal Length (pages) 34.6 1 120 21.1 284
Duration (days) 371.5 6 1691 320.2 340
No. of species (total) 7 4 18 3.6 324
No. of References 164.3 1 434 121.4 330
Species Status length (pages) 18.7 0 67 12.5 325
Baseline length (pages) 6.7 0 23 4.7 318
Effects length (pages) 5.4 0 15.5 3.9 303
Cumulative Effects length (pages) 0.7 0 1.5 0.3 298
CR�� 0.9 0 1 0.3 292
CM�� 0.5 0 1 0.5 272
RPM�� 0.8 0 1 0.4 287
Informal Duration (days) 163 0 1227 223.3 260
No. of species 7.0 1 49 6.0 265
Construction Conditions 0.7 0 1 0.4 264
Numbers are based on individual turtle species per consultation because the jeopardy and adverse modification conclusion is made on per-species basis for an action.
�� CR = Conservation Recommendations made by the Services; CM = Conservation Measures proposed by the action agency; RPM = Reasonable and Prudent Measures
to minimize the amount of take resulting from an action.
Table 3. Generalized linear model selection results for overall completeness across 123 FWS and NMFS consultations.
Model KAICc ΔAICc�� Model Likelihood Akaike Weight Log Likelihood Cum. Wt.
Mod9 5 1544.5 0.00 1.00 0.71 -767.18 0.71
Mod2 6 1546.3 1.79 0.41 0.29 -767.05 1.00
Mod1 14 1558.8 14.33 0.00 0.00 -765.03 1.00
Mod4 5 1561.4 16.90 0.00 0.00 -775.63 1.00
Mod3 13 1571.0 26.51 0.00 0.00 -772.17 1.00
Mod8 2 1574.5 30.08 0.00 0.00 -785.26 1.00
Mod5 4 1601.7 57.28 0.00 0.00 -796.84 1.00
Mod6 2 1607.4 62.94 0.00 0.00 -801.69 1.00
Mod7 2 1628.1 83.65 0.00 0.00 -812.05 1.00
Indicates the number of variables in the model.
�� The Akaike Information Criterion for model selection for small sample sizes. All models with an ΔAIC
<2.0 are considered to be supported.
Comparative analysis of Endangered Species Act consultations by two federal agencies
PLOS ONE | March 20, 2020 8 / 18
Fig 1. Completeness scores for NMFS consultations were higher on average than scores for FWS consultations across all
consultations (A), formal consultations (B), and informal consultations (C). The overall completeness score for each
consultation is the sum of points scored divided by the sum of points possible (see Methods for details). Top panel: Histogram
and boxplots of all consultations (formal and informal, including programmatic consultations) for each Service. Bottom panel:
Overall scores plotted by Service for formal and informal consultations separately.
Comparative analysis of Endangered Species Act consultations by two federal agencies
PLOS ONE | March 20, 2020 9 / 18
consultation and for programmatic consultations in a binomial GLM, there was no relation-
ship (z= 1.024, p= 0.306). Model 2, which included the same predictors as Model 9 but added
in the year the consultation was completed, was also supported. This model indicated that the
year was associated with a slight decrease in consultation completeness over the study period,
though this association was not statistically significant (OR = 0.993; 95% CI = 0.97–1.02), thus
we focus on model 9.
3.2 Components of completeness
We examined sources of variation in the components of overall consultation completeness.
The only component of formal consultations that exhibited a strong association with any pre-
dictor variables was the Environmental Baseline, for which Service was a strong predictor of
completeness and NFMS was more likely to produce more complete consultations (z= 5.3993,
p= 6.691e
; OR
= 2.6e
[95% CI = 6.5e
]; Fig 2). For the Environmental Baseline
section, NMFS consultations were more comprehensive and tended to include previous con-
sultations in the action area and discuss critical habitat or lack thereof as per the Handbook.
Neither of these characteristics were consistently present in FWS consultations. Most of the
completeness components of informal consultations were similar except for two categories
(Fig 3). The analysis of the action and the reason the consultation was informal were associated
with the time duration of the consultation (at a nominal α= 0.05): generally, the longer the
informal consultation took to complete, the more likely these components were included. Sec-
ond, although not required by the Consultation Handbook, half of NMFS but only 15% of
FWS informal consultations included a map of the proposed action.
3.3 Consultation process feedback
We spoke with six biologists from FWS and one from NMFS and coded their responses into
categories of similar themes (Table 5; full response notes in S4 Appendix). When asked how
the consultation process could be improved, most biologists (6 of 7) mentioned they found the
process frustrating and many stated that they were overwhelmed with work. One biologist
pointed to the fear of possible litigation resulting from shorter consultations as a reason for the
overly comprehensive and highly time-consuming consultations that are currently the norm.
Five of seven biologists also favored expanding the use of consultation keys, which are
designed to help the biologists improve the timing and consistency of consultations when
appropriate for a species or on a case-by-case basis (see, e.g.,
resources/WoodStorkConsultationKey.pdf; S5 Appendix). All biologists except one mentioned
that they keep a record of cumulative incidental take, which varied in form from notes kept on
a whiteboard to Excel spreadsheets. However, only three consultations (all from NMFS)
Table 4. Odds ratios (OR), confidence intervals, and parameter statistics for model 9, the best-supported candidate set for predicting overall consultation
OR LCL (2.5%)UCL (97.5%)�� Model z-value p-value
(Intercept) 5.54E
-9.883 4.94E
Service (NMFS) 1.40 1.25 1.57 5.689 1.28E
Formal (yes) 1.00 0.89 1.13 0.042 9.66E
Programmatic (yes) 1.36 1.18 1.57 4.202 2.64E
total duration 1.00 1.00 1.00 1.454 1.46E
LCL = Lower control limit.
�� UCL = Upper control limit.
Comparative analysis of Endangered Species Act consultations by two federal agencies
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incorporated a tally of previously authorized take in the analysis of the effects of the current
action on sea turtle populations.
4. Discussion
The ESA is considered one of the strongest wildlife protection laws in the world [17], and sec-
tion 7 is a foundation of this strength. The content and quality of section 7 consultations can
Fig 2. Individual components of consultations produced by NMFS showed higher completeness scores than those by FWS on average. However, the only
component that statistically differed between the Services was the Environmental Baseline (z= 5.3993, p= 6.691e-08; OR
= 2.6e
[95% CI = 6.5e
The scores are the raw completeness scores for formal consultation components.
Comparative analysis of Endangered Species Act consultations by two federal agencies
PLOS ONE | March 20, 2020 11 / 18
alter conservation outcomes, but such protections can only be realized if the scientific and reg-
ulatory analyses are robust. Despite the importance of consistently high-quality consultations,
no analyses have critically evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of these regulatory docu-
ments. Our analysis offers an urgently needed first step towards understanding the quality of
consultations to inform and improve future consultations. Across all 123 consultations evalu-
ated, we found that completeness relative to the standards in the Handbook varied signifi-
cantly between the Services: NMFS consultation documents were consistently more complete
than FWS consultation documents. We interpret this difference in content as a difference in
consultation quality that may be affecting the conservation of ESA-listed species. In combina-
tion with the biologist discussions, which illuminate some of the possible causes of variation,
our results reveal specific areas of improvement to ensure that future consultations achieve
their objective of protecting threatened and endangered species.
Fig 3. Informal consultations from NMFS featured more information and therefore showed higher completeness scores than those
from FWS on average. The components of informal consultation completeness scores were binary (0 indicates absence; 1 indicates
presence) in the consultations.
Table 5. Responses to a selected sample of consultation process questions asked of FWS/NMFS biologists.
Biologist Favor consultation
Often encounter scientific
Tally cumulative
Frequently reference
section 7 Handbook
Favor publicly available
Suggestions for
1 In some cases No Yes Yes Yes Inter-office consistency
2 Yes No Yes No Yes None
3 No No Yes Variable Yes Inter-office consistency
4 Yes Rarely, assume species is
Yes No Yes Intra- and inter-office
5 In some cases Rarely, assume species is
Makes an
Yes Yes BiOp streamlining
6 In some cases No Yes Yes Yes Inter-office consistency
7 No, too nuanced Yes, defer to species No—too difficult No Yes Improve efficiency
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4.1 Consultation quality
The completion of both formal and informal consultations was higher in documents produced
by NMFS than FWS. This result is consistent with prior findings that NMFS scored higher
than FWS in three of seven metrics characterizing the use of “Best Available Science” in recov-
ery plans, lawsuits, listing decisions, and literature cited in biological opinions and no differ-
ence was detected between the agencies in the other four metrics [9]. Although the cause of the
difference is beyond the scope of our study, our discussions with Service biologists suggested
one possible explanation: that the lack of time and resources available for the agencies’ ever-
increasing consultation workload may limit their quality. The FWS biologists especially
stressed this point, which reflects the funding shortfall experienced by the FWS endangered
species program. This program receives approximately equal funding as the Office of Protected
Resources at NMFS even though Ecological Services within FWS is responsible for 15 times as
many ESA-listed species [9]. Expenditures per consultation is therefore likely much lower for
FWS. Future research should investigate how the Services allocate funding to consultations
compared to other endangered species program components, such as listing and recovery.
Our scoring of the individual sections of biological opinions provides further insight into
why FWS consultations are lower completeness than NMFS consultations and for which con-
tent both Services deviate from the expectations of the Handbook. Although documents by
both Services consistently showed low completeness in the Environmental Baseline section
because previously authorized incidental take in the action area was rarely analyzed, FWS
scored lower than NMFS because the take analysis was missing from all prior consultations.
The lack of this analysis is one of the most pernicious problems with implementing the ESA
[10]. The omission of hundreds or thousands of minor take actions from analysis in consulta-
tions can compound to result in “death by a thousand cuts,” whereby individual actions are
insignificant for the species but the cumulative effects across many actions severely damage
their populations [18]. A 2009 Government Accountability Office report on FWS’s implemen-
tation of the ESA highlighted this concern and recommended that the Services track autho-
rized take across a species’ entire range to better inform consultations [19]. The only three
consultations that included an analysis of previously authorized take were all produced by
NMFS, enhancing the difference in completeness between the Services for this core section.
However, it is worth noting that FWS’s programmatic consultation for beach work across
Florida (Activity Code 41910-2010-F-284) listed previous formal consultations. Unfortunately,
those data were not analyzed in the evaluated consultation and there was no evidence they
played a role in the Environmental Baseline or the Effects Analysis. It is unclear why previously
authorized take in the action area was not analyzed, especially since many biologists that we
spoke with stated that they record cumulative take. Future research should investigate the dis-
connect between the information that Services biologists record and the information included
in consultations.
Although the Handbook requires certain analyses for each section, sections of many FWS
consultations contained little or no analysis and instead merely repeated the boilerplate lan-
guage from the Handbook. This was particularly true of the Cumulative Effects section of FWS
consultations, which often mentioned the obligation to “include the effects of future State,
tribal, local or private actions that are reasonably certain to occur,” followed by a statement
that there would be no cumulative effects. In contrast, most NMFS consultations more thor-
oughly analyzed the cumulative effects, which are critical to understanding the effects on spe-
cies conservation status.
The Handbook guidance for informal consultations is less prescriptive than for formal con-
sultations, but our analysis revealed that the completeness of consultations by FWS is similarly
Comparative analysis of Endangered Species Act consultations by two federal agencies
PLOS ONE | March 20, 2020 13 / 18
lower than for NMFS. Three components—the analysis of the action, the species analysis, and
a map of the action area—were consistently missing or insufficient in the informal FWS con-
sultations that we reviewed. On one hand, because informal consultation is merely a prerequi-
site to determine whether formal consultation is warranted, we recognize that detailed
informal consultation analysis is unlikely to benefit ESA-listed species. Nonetheless, omission
of content means that the administrative record is inconsistent and incomplete [see ref. 20 for
a relevant discussion] and, most alarming of all, differs from the Services’ expert recommenda-
tions for informal consultations. This is apparent in the use of “sticker” concurrences,
observed both in our preliminary work and in one randomly sampled informal consultation.
While these stickers may save time, they provide no record of why FWS approved the action
or method for assessing whether FWS properly implemented that component of the ESA. Fur-
thermore, in contrast, all informal consultations from NMFS explained why the consultation
was informal. The shortcomings of FWS informal consultations can likely be explained by the
resource constraints, yet we highlight this example as an invitation for the agency to critically
evaluate whether such shortcuts appropriately achieve greater efficiency, or whether different
improvements could make the process more effective.
4.2 Opportunities for improving consultation efficiency
The stark difference between the FWS and NMFS in consultation completeness highlight gap
in the way section 7 is implemented. This discrepancy, coupled with the known disparity in
both workload and resources (both financial and personnel) available per consultation, means
that improving the efficiency with which the Services carry out consultations is essential to
properly implementing the ESA. Ideally, the Services should spend enough time on each con-
sultation so as to maximize the conservation benefit to a listed species. Awareness of this opti-
mal threshold, and the required content to reach it, would avoid overspending precious
resources [21]. Here we discuss some critical inefficiencies, and potential pitfalls of efficient
approaches, indicated by our results.
The higher completeness scores associated with consultations tiered off of the FWS pro-
grammatic consultation indicate that programmatic consultations are one promising way to
improve consultation efficiency. The effects analysis of programmatic consultations should
provide a better description of cumulative effects because many planned or potential projects
within a program are evaluated together rather than individually. We expect that when the
cumulative impacts are properly acknowledged, the assessment of jeopardy or adverse modifi-
cation is more likely to reflect real-world conditions. Another benefit is that because the overall
program has already been evaluated, the consultations for future individual projects are faster
and can contain less analysis. Malcom and Li (2015) found that project-level consultations that
tiered off of a program-level consultation were completed nearly three times faster than the
average standard consultation. In the set of consultations we evaluated, the single FWS pro-
gram-level programmatic consultation for beach renourishment across Florida was a “tide that
raised all boats,” in which the project-level programmatic consultations that tiered off of the
program-level programmatic consultation “inherited” the (generally) high scores of the pro-
gram-level consultation and significantly increased the completeness of FWS consultations.
Whether this is an outlier or representative of programmatic consultations in general is
unclear but deserves further investigation. But the converse is also possible: low-quality pro-
gram-level programmatic consultations would mean that tiered consultations inherit low-
quality analyses that would likely lead to poor conservation outcomes. While the results from
this set of consultations are promising, the Services need to continually evaluate their pro-
grammatic consultations to ensure that the speed benefits of these consultations do not over-
shadow the need for high-quality analyses.
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Our discussions with biologists from the Services provided important context for interpret-
ing the results and indicated other possibilities for improving consultation efficiency. The lack
of consistency among offices and between Services was frequently mentioned as a frustrating
aspect of the consultation process. The differing approaches to consultations can be difficult
for action agencies as well, who can see the approval of a project depend largely on the consult-
ing office (Y-WL and JWM, pers. obs.). One possible solution that we did not test is the use of
consultation keys, as have been developed for Army Corps of Engineers consultations for a
few species, including wood storks (Mycteria americana) and indigo snakes (Drymarchon cou-
peri). The Services use these documents to promote appropriate standards for certain con-
struction activities. Creating similar documents for other frequently-consulted species may
streamline consultations and increase inter-office and inter-Service consistency. The use of
consultation keys would also increase the transparency of the consultation process, making it
easier for action agencies or their applicants to plan their projects.
We note one particular aspect of consultations that was not amenable to quantitative analy-
sis but suggests efficiency improvements: inclusion of extensive material seemingly irrelevant
to evaluating the effects of the action. For example, several consultations we reviewed included
>20 pages of information on red knots (Calidris canutus), of which one paragraph was rele-
vant to evaluating the action (JWM, pers. obs.). Including such inconsequential background
information requires additional time not only for Services’ biologists, but also for the action
agency or their applicants who read the opinion. By way of explanation, one FWS biologist
mentioned that such information was included to buffer against any potential legal action,
ensuring all “bases are covered.” However, this approach conflates “more” with “better”—the
added time and cost does not always produce commensurate benefits for legal defensibility or
conservation [22]. We encourage the Services to critically evaluate the information in biologi-
cal opinions and exclude irrelevant material. The Recovery Planning Initiative (RPI) now
being adopted by FWS (S6 Appendix) can help with this extraneous information problem.
One component of RPI is a single, continually updated Species Status Assessment (SSA) for
each ESA-listed species, which would be incorporated by reference in consultations, conserva-
tion permits, five-year reviews, and other aspects of ESA implementation (S7 Appendix).
Widespread adoption of SSAs would improve efficiency and, because they should include an
analysis of previously authorized take, improve the effectiveness of section 7 consultations.
A simplifying assumption we made is that a more complete consultation that addresses
each of the parameters of the Handbook will lead to better conservation outcomes for the spe-
cies and is thus a higher quality document. While not every parameter set by the Handbook
will help advance the goal of the consultation equally, addressing each parameter is important
for understanding the rationale of the Service and action agency throughout the evaluation
process. For these reasons, we believe the completeness of the consultation document holds
substantial importance for species conservation. A caveat to this methodology is that in reduc-
ing complex documents like biological opinions to a few indicators often means some nuances
to individual situations are lost. This is inevitable in the translating of a qualitative document
to a quantitative process, but in equally applying guidance from the Handbook, we avoid this
to the best of our abilities.
4.3 Policy recommendations
Our results provide a basis for several policy recommendations that would improve the Ser-
vices implementation of section 7 of the ESA:
1. Develop and require the use of a single database for recording and querying authorized take.
The component most commonly missing from consultations we reviewed was an analysis
Comparative analysis of Endangered Species Act consultations by two federal agencies
PLOS ONE | March 20, 2020 15 / 18
of previously authorized take in the action area. This is not surprising because FWS and
NMFS have not yet established a unified, systematic way for their biologists to record
authorized take, much less to comprehensively quantify and track previously authorized
take to use in the jeopardy and adverse modification analyses. A centralized take database
was recommended by the GAO over a decade ago [19] but has not yet been implemented
by the Services. Implementing this recommendation would dramatically improve the com-
pleteness of the Environmental Baseline analysis of consultations. In turn, we expect better
conservation outcomes for consulted-on species. In addition to consultations, an autho-
rized take database would be invaluable for informing ESA-required five-year status
reviews, such that harmful effects from consultations can be compared to beneficial effects
from conservation activities.
2. Establish a systematic review protocol to ensure that programmatic consultations,which can
increase efficiency,do not reduce the effectiveness of consultation. Programmatic consulta-
tions can increase consultation effectiveness and efficiency–in theory–but the Services must
ensure that the quality of project-level consultations is not sacrificed. In our results, the pro-
grammatic consultation was the “rising tide that lifted all boats.” Ensuring that other and
future programmatic consultations are similarly well-crafted can result in high quality, con-
sistently- implemented consultations. The Services have expressed an interest in increasing
the use of programmatic consultations and recently promulgated new regulations to do so
(50 CFR § 402.14), but such an increase must formally guard against a loss of effectiveness.
Regular reviews at the field office, regional, and national levels, guided by a robust “check-
list” of effectiveness measures, could also benefit an expansion of the use of programmatic
3. Require more widespread development and use of consultation keys. Our results revealed var-
iation in consultation completeness between the Services. If we had chosen a wider selection
of consultations, this variation may have further increased. This highlights the need to pro-
mote standardization as a means of improving the efficiency and effectiveness of consulta-
tions. The biologists we spoke with suggested that the use of consultation keys could
improve consistency. Although not every species and every type of action is amenable to
consultation keys, wider use of keys could significantly improve the parts of consultations
where they are relevant.
4. Reduce workload by referencing prior documents. To reduce the rote workload for consulta-
tion biologists and consulting agencies, the Services could consider transitioning to
referencing SSAs, created as part of the Recovery Planning and Implementation strategy, in
consultations. This would dovetail with FWS’s current revision of the recovery planning
program, which places SSAs as a central piece of the process. Improving efficiency through
standardization should not mean cutting corners, however. The informal concurrence
stickers are a form of standardization, but, as currently used, they do not provide an ade-
quate record of why decisions were made. They may be sufficient if modified slightly, such
as by adding simple check boxes and short note fields to indicate the reason a consultation
qualified as informal.
Implementing the above recommendations could significantly increase efficiency to better
use the precious resources of the Services, and thus would improve the conservation benefit
conferred by section 7 consultations. Strengthening the completeness of the consultations
through these methods would enable the Services to improve the overall effectiveness of the
ESA, thereby reinforcing its critical role in conserving imperiled species.
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Supporting information
S1 Fig. Informal sticker concurrence.
S1 Appendix. Scoring rubric for formal ESA section 7 consultations.
S2 Appendix. Scoring rubric for informal ESA section 7 consultations.
S3 Appendix. Consultation process questions for fish and wildlife service and national
marine fisheries service biologists.
S4 Appendix. Biologist responses.
S5 Appendix. Wood stork consultation key.
S6 Appendix. Recovery planning and implementation fact sheet.
S7 Appendix. Species status assessment presentation.
We thank the personnel from the Florida offices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the
St. Petersburg office of the National Marine Fisheries Service; and the Florida Fish and Wildlife
Conservation Commission for their work on consultations and for the insights they provided
us during this project. This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies
in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.
Author Contributions
Conceptualization: Megan Evansen, Ya-Wei Li, Jacob Malcom.
Data curation: Megan Evansen.
Formal analysis: Megan Evansen, Jacob Malcom.
Investigation: Megan Evansen.
Methodology: Megan Evansen, Jacob Malcom.
Project administration: Jacob Malcom.
Supervision: Ya-Wei Li, Jacob Malcom.
Validation: Jacob Malcom.
Writing – original draft: Megan Evansen, Jacob Malcom.
Writing – review & editing: Megan Evansen, Ya-Wei Li, Jacob Malcom.
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PLOS ONE | March 20, 2020 17 / 18
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... Perhaps because of the details afforded in section 7 of the ESA and the seminal ESA case of the snail darter and the Tellico River Dam in Tennessee Valley Authority vs. Hill (1978), the 7(a)(2) consultation process has long been the focus of federal agencies. That focus is then reflected in research and academic interest over the years, ranging from early analyses of consultations (Barry et al., 1992), to comparative analyses between the Services (Owen, 2012;Evansen et al., 2020), to program-level analysis of each Service (Malcom and Li, 2015;Evans et al., 2019). However, while over the decades agencies have spent extensive attention to complying with their consultation obligations under section 7(a)(2), much less effort has been focused on their recovery obligations under section 7(a)(1). ...
... First and foremost, the natural relationship between 7(a)(1) and 7(a)(2) is the conservation status of the species: if species are moved closer to recovery then it would reduce the likelihood of the Services finding jeopardy or adverse modification during 7(a)(2) consultation. However, if the Services believe an activity will lead to jeopardy or adverse modification despite a 7(a)(1) plan, they could use the plan to develop "reasonable and prudent alternatives" to the proposed action, which are essentially conservation measures that modify the activity and allow it to proceed (Evansen et al., 2020). ...
Full-text available
The U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) is widely considered to be one of the strongest laws for protecting imperiled wildlife, with nearly all species protected under the law still existing today. Among the ESA's strongest provisions, at least as written, is the requirement under section 7(a)(1) that federal agencies use their authorities to help recover imperiled species. New initiatives like 30 x 30, the campaign to conserve at least 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, offer opportunities to reinvigorate and expand 7(a)(1) programs to play a significant role in biodiversity conservation. To gauge the current status of 7(a)(1) plans and assess their effectiveness, we collected all section 7(a)(1) materials available to the public through internet searches and direct requests to agencies. We evaluated the scope of existing 7(a)(1) programs and found that despite the clear potential benefits of strong programs, the section has been significantly underused by federal agencies. Further, we show that existing plans are highly inconsistent in content and style, and we trace that inconsistency to the lack of policy guidance for their creation and implementation. Based on these findings, we recommend five strategies for improving 7(a)(1) implementation: establishment of formal guidance from the federal wildlife agencies, tailored guidance from other federal agencies to help them meet their 7(a)(1) obligation, dedicated funding, integration of 7(a)(1) into existing initiatives and opportunities, and top-level executive branch coordination and cooperation.
... All endangered animal species and many threatened species that come under its protection are given strict protections against "take, " including not just hunting or killing, but also harassment (section 9). The ESA requires that federal agencies use their authorities to help recover species and prohibits agencies from taking, permitting, or funding actions that jeopardize a species' existence or destroy or adversely modify their designated critical habitat (section 7; Malcom and Li, 2015;Evansen et al., 2020;Evans et al., 2020). The law also creates the framework for cooperation with states, including funding mechanisms, and internationally, the ESA provides the legal mechanisms that prohibit trade of listed species [section 8(a)]. ...
... This would be akin to one application of "recovery units, " which are portions of a species' range identified in recovery plans as essential to the recovery of a species and therefore subject to being conserved to avoid jeopardy (NMFS andUSFS, 2010, Evans et al., 2020). This interpretation would have the potential to significantly reduce the risk of "death by a thousand cuts" that remains challenging in imperiled species conservation (Malcom and Li, 2015;Evans et al., 2019;Evansen et al., 2020). Further analysis of this possibility is beyond the scope of the current paper, but highlights that additional consequences are likely and remain to be discovered and understood if representation is given its due. ...
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In the United States, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses the concepts of resilience, redundancy, and representation—often known as the “3Rs”—to guide implementation of the Endangered Species Act, which requires the U.S. government to designate imperiled species as threatened or endangered, and take action to recover them. The Service has done little, however, to relate the 3Rs to the statutory requirements of the Act. Here we focus on interpreting the concept of representation given core tenets of science and conservation policy. We show that the Service's current interpretation, which focuses on a narrow set of characteristics intrinsic to species that facilitate future adaptation, falls far short of a reasonable interpretation from the scientific literature and other policy, and has significant consequences for the conservation of threatened and endangered species, including those found in other countries. To illustrate the shortcomings in practice, we discuss the cases of the Lower 48 gray wolf (Canis lupus) delisting, the proposed Red-cockadedWoodpecker (Picoides borealis) downlisting, and the possible downlisting of the Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis). We then propose an alternative interpretation of representation that accommodates the Service's narrow interpretation and broadens it to include the importance of intraspecific variation for its own sake as well as extrinsic characteristics such as a species' role in ecological communities. We argue that this interpretation better reflects the intent of the Endangered Species Act, the best available science, and policy needs for conserving imperiled wildlife, all of which recognize the importance not only of preventing global extinction but also of preventing ecological extinction and extirpation across significant portions of a species' range.
... The ESA is widely regarded as one of the strongest laws in the world for conservation of biodiversity, but laws are only as strong as their implementation and enforcement. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ("Service"), which implements the ESA for terrestrial and freshwater species, has often been criticized for protecting species too slowly and in some cases, too late (Schwartz, 2008;Puckett et al., 2016;Eberhard et al., 2022), setting recovery targets too low (Tear et al., 1993;Neel et al., 2012), and not enforcing the law's prohibitions (Malcom and Li, 2015;Evansen et al., 2020). ...
Full-text available
Over the last 30 years, there have been numerous legal battles over recovery of the grizzly bear. These battles have brought to fore a question central to implementation of the Act, namely is the goal of recovery to merely remediate extinction risk or to affect broader ecosystem recovery. I systematically reviewed court decisions related to the grizzly bear’s recovery plan, efforts to remove protections for grizzly bears, and challenges to logging, mining and other projects with impacts to grizzly bears. A legal challenge to the grizzly bear’s 1993 recovery plan forced the Service to develop habitat-based recovery criteria for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Legal efforts to reopen the recovery plan and expand recovery into additional areas of historic range, however, were unsuccessful, leaving the scope of recovery largely at the discretion of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Lawsuits brought by multiple conservation groups, tribes and individuals have constrained this discretion, twice stopping the agency from stripping Greater Yellowstone grizzly bears of federal protections. This has allowed the population to grow and forced consideration of the impact of removing protections for Greater Yellowstone bears on overall recovery as a requirement of any future effort to remove protections. Court decisions were issued on 65 challenges to projects impacting grizzly bear habitat, including 44 involving logging and related road construction, seven mining, four livestock grazing, two recreation, five oil and gas leasing and three road projects, leading to 11 of these projects being stopped and nine modified. Lawsuits were also filed to stop hunting in four instances, trapping in one, predator control in one and railroad mortality in two, as well as activities that disturb bears, including helicopters in two instances and snow mobile use in another, resulting in four being stopped and another 3 modified. Protection of the grizzly bear under the Endangered Species Act, along with subsequent litigation, has led to substantial changes in management of public lands in the four recovery zones with grizzly bear populations, but not elsewhere in the species’ range. Overall, the legal system is an important, but often overlooked, part of recovery of endangered species.
... Duggan (2011) was able to identify incidental take permit hotspots for US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) species, but was unable to do the same for NMFS species, noting NMFS lacked a comprehensive take permitting database; he advocated for the creation of a central database of takes of endangered species to improve internal management and public transparency. Several others have also highlighted the need for systematic and comprehensive take-tracking systems, noting the benefits of such systems for improving ESA consultations by readily providing information about the cumulative take to which the species is already subjected, aiding assessments of the impacts of additional take to ensure they do not jeopardize the species' future existence, as well as providing scientific support for the agency to take necessary steps to prevent extinction (Duggan, 2011;Evansen et al., 2020;NMFS, 2019;Totoiu, 2011;USGAO, 2009). Thanks to litigation in the early 2000s, the USFWS recognized there were also legal benefits and developed range-wide taketracking databases for northern spotted owls (Strix occidentalis caurina) and bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus), and for a portion of the range for marbled murrelets (Brachyramphus marmoratus) (Totoiu, 2011). ...
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Abstract Endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales' (CIBWs; Delphinapterus leucas) abundance has declined nearly 80% since the 1970s, and continues to decline 2.3% annually with less than 300 whales remaining. Despite the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act prohibiting take of protected species, exceptions allow the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to authorize take of CIBWs. Harassment, a type of take, has the potential to hinder CIBWs' recovery by contributing to the threat of cumulative effects. Recovery action 62 in the 2016 CIBW Recovery Plan recommends NMFS reassess its current project‐by‐project approach for authorizing harassment takes to determine whether a comprehensive approach is more effective at reducing cumulative effects. To start this assessment, we compiled data from publicly available documents about CIBW research and incidental take authorizations effective since publication of the Recovery Plan, identified the amount of legal harassment NMFS authorized annually, and examined whether a relationship exists between total annual take authorizations and the population size. By the end of 2020, NMFS authorized nearly 120,000 takes of CIBWs cumulatively for 2017–2025. In 2020 alone, 22,350 takes were authorized, equating to 8371% of the estimated population size; research takes accounted for 99.4% of the total authorizations; and 50% of the population was authorized to be incidentally harassed. We found strong evidence of an inverse relationship between total takes authorized annually and the population size. Our results provide support for NMFS immediately implementing action 62 to take a critical look at the existing process for authorizing takes and its potential impacts to CIBW recovery. Several recommendations are provided for improving the take authorization process to help reduce the potential for cumulative effects and improve transparency of take data. To our knowledge, this is the first assessment of cumulative levels of take authorizations of CIBWs at this scale.
... About half of species listed under the ESA (n = 742) have designated critical habitat, and of those, two-thirds (n = 494) have GAP 1-3 coverage for ≥50% of the designated critical habitat. This means that many listed species will receive substantial protections across GAP status if the ESA is properly implemented (Malcom andLi 2015, Evans et al. 2019, Evansen et al. 2020. ...
Technical Report
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Addressing the current biodiversity crisis will require transformative changes to social, political and economic structures. One science-based recommendation is protecting at least 30% of Earth’s terrestrial and marine systems by 2030, a goal embraced by a global movement and popularized as “30x30.” Here we report the current spatial patterns of biodiversity and carbon stores in the U.S. relative to protected areas to help conservationists and decision-makers understand the starting point on the path to achieving 30x30. Multi-scale analyses demonstrate that 30x30 is numerically achievable nationally, but high spatial heterogeneity highlights the need for tailored approaches from a mix of authorities at federal, regional and state scales. Critically, current protections regularly don’t overlap with areas essential for conserving imperiled species biodiversity and mitigating climate change impacts through carbon sequestration. We discuss this baseline relative to key policy considerations for making substantial progress toward the goal.
The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) is the primary policy governing the use of biofuels in the United States. Following the 2007 enactment of the RFS, there has been substantial expansion in the use of cropland to produce biofuel feedstocks, including corn and soybeans. Both the conversion of land and the ongoing cultivation of these crops can, depending on management practices, lead to negative environmental outcomes including degraded water quality, increased water use, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and loss or degradation of wildlife habitat. These outcomes have the potential to affect threatened and endangered species protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA requires federal agencies to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service to ensure that an agency's actions are not likely to jeopardize the existence of imperiled species, nor result in the destruction or adverse modification of their habitat. However, formal consultation has not yet been completed between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—the agency charged with implementing the RFS—and the wildlife services, thereby hindering mitigation or remediation of potential impacts. This analysis explores the likely effects of the RFS on land use changes and critical habitat, illustrates example pathways by which threatened and endangered species may be affected, and proposes solutions to help redress this harm. The findings suggest a need for further consultation and assessment of the interactions between the RFS and ESA as well as additional research to support the species-conservation and policymaking processes.
The United States Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, a law aimed at preventing the extinction of rare species. Since then, the ESA has become increasingly politicized in the U.S., adding to the difficulty of ESA implementation and endangered species management, while species continue to go extinct at alarming rates. The ESA is among the first statues to include a “best available science” mandate, requiring that agencies use the best scientific and commercial data to guide key decisions. Because the way in which agencies use science under the ESA is often the legal basis for litigation, it is timely and pertinent to evaluate the federal agencies' sources of information—and their uses of this information. The “best” available science and its use are each moving targets, difficult to define in the abstract. However, a straightforward way of evaluating these ideas is to compare the use of science by each of the two administrative agencies in charge of implementing the ESA, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA). Here, we use bibliographic data, litigation records, authorship affiliation, and related data to ask whether the two agencies' use of scientific information differs systematically. Overall, we find that NOAA draws more deeply from the scientific literature and is somewhat better buffered from changes in political administration than is FWS. These results suggest NOAA's implementation is more closely aligned with commonly held ideas of good scientific practice than that of FWS, although in some cases these differences could also result from the different amounts of available information on the species each agency manages. We then interpret these findings in the context of each agency's budget, structure, and history and highlight specific policy mechanisms that would allow the agencies to improve endangered species management, and reduce their own exposure to litigation, by improving their use of high-quality scientific information
Significance The US Endangered Species Act is the most comprehensive law any nation has enacted to protect imperiled species. Many of its protections come from section 7 of the Act, but how government regulators use this tool is poorly understood. Our analysis is the first to systematically evaluate how the US Fish and Wildlife Service has implemented section 7 over an extend timeframe and across all listed species. The results inform current efforts to improve the conservation effectiveness of section 7 and rebut certain claims about the regulatory burdens of complying with section 7.