A Perspective on the Endangered Species Act

Dale Bosworth, Chief
Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies
Sun Valley, ID
— July 26, 2004

It’s a pleasure to be here. I appreciate this opportunity to talk about the Endangered Species Act. I think it pays to take a look at the laws governing our natural resource management from time to time and see how well they are working—or, more specifically, how well we are doing in meeting the goals that those laws were intended to achieve.

Commitment to Wildlife Conservation

In the case of ESA, those goals go to the very heart of our mission at the Forest Service. Next year, the National Forest System will be a century old. The national forests were created a century ago—and the Forest Service was charged with managing them—because of what was going on in our country at the time, not just with respect to timber and watersheds, but also with respect to wildlife.

It was a time of run-away exploitation of our natural resources, including game animals. Deer were in decline, wild turkey were in decline, elk and grizzly had disappeared from most of their range, and bison were on the edge of extinction, just to name a few. Our mission was partly to give these and other animals the refuge they needed—the habitat and protection they needed—so that future generations of Americans would not lose this part of their heritage.

And we did. For the past century, we have worked with our state and private partners for the recovery of American wildlife. When I first started with the Forest Service in the 1960s, our focus was mainly on fish and game. Over the years, our state and private partnerships have succeeded in protecting and recovering a lot of fish and game—elk, wild turkey, salmon, trout, and more.

But public values have changed, and our focus has expanded as a result. Today, Americans want us to protect habitat for all kinds of native wildlife, not just fish and game. Wildlife conservation is a bigger part of our job than ever.

Today, national forest land provides habitat for 425 species listed under ESA. For the past 40 years, we’ve protected about a third of all listed species, and we’re proud of that. Working with partners, we’ve brought back red-cockaded woodpecker in the South and grizzly in the Northern Rockies. We’ve had some other successes, too, but to me red-cockaded woodpecker and grizzly really stand out.

My point is this: The Forest Service has always been deeply committed to wildlife conservation. The goals of ESA go to the core of who we are as conservationists. I personally share those goals and we share them as an agency. I want to make that clear.

Conservation Programs

We work for wildlife conservation in two ways—by preventing species from being listed where we can and by working for their recovery where we must. I’ll say a few words about our programs before turning to some of the things that we find a little frustrating in implementing ESA.

Prevention is always easier and less costly than recovery, so we make it a priority. On national forest land, we protect habitat for more than 3,200 designated sensitive species, both terrestrial and aquatic. These are species that need special management to keep them from becoming threatened or endangered.

We also do hands-on recovery projects. In fiscal 2003, the Forest Service invested $37.2 million in threatened, endangered, and sensitive species recovery and conservation. We had 1,461 programs and projects to benefit hundreds of species. More than a third of those involved partnerships, where we leveraged about $8 million in partner funding. We improved more than 220,000 acres of habitat and 630 miles of stream for T&E species. We reintroduced some species and kept others from being listed, and non-TES species also benefited from those projects.

So we’re doing a lot under ESA and we’ve had some successes. Of course, we still have a lot of work left to do. We fully support the state wildlife agreements and state wildlife grants initiatives, and we want to work closely with the states on your plans to benefit the species of greatest conservation need in your particular states. We want to complete recovery plans for the 20 percent of T&E species without them—and we need to implement the plans we do have, using the best available science.

There are always more opportunities than funding, but we do a lot to stretch our limited resources to benefit TES species and habitats. For example, for 5 years the Forest Service has funded the biologists from the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries to expedite National Fire Plan project consultations. We’re also part of the Plant Conservation Alliance, and the Interagency Riparian Restoration Team. Over the years we have developed program and project partnerships with thousands of organizations, businesses, landowners and other publics. And we’ve developed landowner incentive and stewardship grants programs to support habitat and species recovery. These programs have been effective and should be used more often.


I say all this not to brag about how much we’re doing—or to bore you with details so you’ll just be glad when I stop talking—but because I think there’s a lot we can accomplish together under ESA. Having said that, we’ve also had some frustrations, not so much directly with ESA as with our processes for implementing it. Let me just say a few words about that before closing.

Forest Planning. One of our biggest frustrations has to do with our forest planning process. In the past, it’s taken us years to get a forest plan in place to protect an endangered species. By that time, it might easily be too late.

Take Canada lynx, for example. If we’d had a way to amend our forest plans in a few months instead of a few years, we might have been able to keep the lynx from being listed. But we didn’t, and now the lynx is listed. So our own processes—our process gridlock, analysis paralysis, or whatever you want to call it—did this to us, and now we have to find a way out.

The problem isn’t with ESA itself, but with our forest planning process. We need a new planning rule, and we’ve been working on it. I hope we’ll be publishing it soon. It will give our forest supervisors and district rangers a lot more of the guidance and flexibility they need to recover endangered species and prevent others from being listed. It will help us work better with the states, local communities, private landowners, and all of our other partners. It will let us do a better job of managing the National Forest System for wildlife, which—as I said—is a big part of what we’re all about.

Delisting. Another source of frustration for us is the difficulty of removing a species from the threatened and endangered list. We ought to be focusing our attention and resources on the species that really need help, so when a species is recovered, it ought to drop off the list. Otherwise, it becomes a distraction.

In my opinion, it’s just too hard to demonstrate recovery and remove a species from the T&E list. The bald eagle is an obvious example. Every Fourth of July, I hear rumors that it’s going to be delisted, but it never seems to happen. We’ve spent millions to recover the bald eagle, and it’s a great success story. But now we need to take that money and use it to help other species.

Consultations. A third source of frustration is all the time it takes to get consultations done with other agencies. Under ESA or the Clean Water Act, it might take so long to get agreement to proceed with a project that you begin to wonder whether it’s really worth it. It can be a huge waste of time and resources.

Take culverts, for example. We’ve got thousands of culverts on national forest land that were put in decades ago during the timber era. A lot of them are in bad shape or don’t meet current specs, and they’re blocking passage for TES species. They obviously need replacing, and in my view we spend too much time and resources in consultation with other agencies about that.

Again, the problem isn’t with ESA itself, but with our own processes. We’re working on fixing that. We’ve gotten some new counterpart regulations with the Fish and Wildlife Service that will be a big help in modernizing our processes so we can put more of our resources on the ground where they’re needed to protect and recover TES species.

Single-Species Approach. There’s one more problem I’d like to mention, and that’s the single-species focus of ESA. I think it’s out of date. We’ve come a long way in the last 30 or 40 years. Our natural resource management today is nothing like it was back then. Today, and for the foreseeable future, our focus at the Forest Service will be on ecological restoration and outdoor recreation. We’ve learned the need to focus on entire landscapes—on watersheds—in designing our management plans.

Yes, we need to keep every cog in the wheel, so we do have to protect every species. But our management prescriptions have to cover the entire ecosystem and all of its functions and processes if we really want to give every species a chance to survive. That’s why the Forest Service is focusing on what we call the Four Threats—fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged outdoor recreation.

Take fire and fuels, for example. We’ve seen record-breaking fires in recent years because so many of our ecosystems are unhealthy. A good example is the Hayman Fire in Colorado a couple of years ago. Hayman wiped out a big chunk of the remaining habitat for an endangered butterfly, the Pawnee montane skipper. We don’t know whether the butterfly will ever recover. Something similar happened last year with those huge fires in southern California. They might have ended all hope of survival for some butterflies and other species.

And the damage goes well beyond individual species. These terrible fires are so severely out of character for these forests that they can put entire components of ecosystems at risk—by cooking the soils, for example, or by paving the way for invasive species. The ecosystem might not recover for decades or even centuries.

Such problems are huge, and they won’t be solved with a species-by-species approach. The treatments we need are long-term and on a landscape level, and we need to carefully weigh the long-term benefits against the short-term impacts on this or that individual population. I think the species-by-species approach reflects a bygone era of science and management. We’ve got to get past that if we really want to protect and recover our threatened and endangered species.

Again, we’re working on that. Title I of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act has some language in it directing the courts to look at the long-term benefits of our forest health treatments.


So those are some of the frustrations we face in implementing ESA. But most of the time, I don’t have a problem with ESA or the other laws we work under. We shouldn’t go after ESA with a meat axe if a scalpel will do, especially if our biggest problem lies elsewhere. It seems to me that our biggest problem is actually with some of the processes that can make our laws so hard to implement.

But things are getting better. We’re working on improving our processes, and I think we’re seeing some positive results. We’ll see even more ahead.

Before closing, let me just mention one more thing. At my request, a task force reviewed the Forest Service’s fisheries and watershed programs. Their report was completed in June, and we are in the process of reviewing it and considering its recommendations. The report was distributed to the fisheries chiefs at their session on Sunday. Virgil Moore, fisheries chief for Idaho, was an important member of that task force. I appreciate his hard work, and I thank the Idaho Department of Fish and Game for making him available to us.

In closing, let me just say that the Forest Service is deeply committed to the spirit and intent of ESA. I think we probably all are, and we’ve had some good success together in reaching some of its goals over the years. We’re gradually improving our processes for doing so, and I think we’ll see even more progress ahead.

I’m eager to hear other people’s opinions on how we can do a better job of implementing ESA with the resources we have. Anything that helps us all work together toward the goals we all share is well worth discussing.