Endangered Species Act:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Has Incomplete Information about Effects on Listed Species from Section 7 Consultations

GAO-09-550: Published: May 21, 2009. Publicly Released: May 21, 2009.

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The western United States, including vast stretches of federal land, is home to more than a third of the 1,317 species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Under section 7 of the act, federal agencies must ensure that any actions they authorize, fund, or carry out, whether on federal or private lands, do not jeopardize listed species. To fulfill this responsibility, the agencies often must formally consult with the Department of the Interior's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), which issues a biological opinion assessing whether an action is likely to "take," or harm, a listed species. The Service may require the agencies to monitor and report on the action's effects on listed species, including take. For listed species subject to formal consultations in 11 western states, GAO was asked to examine the extent to which the Service tracks (1) required monitoring reports and (2) cumulative take. GAO reviewed the act, regulations, and policy and interviewed Service staff in all western states, reviewed 128 consultation files in five offices, and analyzed 23 listed species in detail.

The Service lacks a systematic means of tracking the monitoring reports it requires in biological opinions and does not know the extent of compliance with these requirements. To track monitoring reports, the Service relies on its biologists to keep abreast of biological opinions and follow up on required monitoring reports. At the field offices GAO visited, Service biologists could not account for all required monitoring reports in 40 of 64 consultation files (63 percent) requiring such reports. Service staff said they face a demanding workload, and responding to new consultation requests often takes higher priority than following up on monitoring reports. This reliance on individual biologists leaves the Service with incomplete institutional knowledge of the extent of action agencies' compliance with reporting requirements, as well as with incomplete information on species' responses to the actions under consultation. The Service also lacks a systematic method for tracking cumulative take of most listed species. Out of 497 listed species in the western states, GAO identified 3 species for which the Service has a formal, Web-based database for tracking cumulative take: northern spotted owl, marbled murrelet,and bull trout. GAO identified 7 more species for which Service biologists developed informal means to track cumulative take. While Service staff generally agreed that it is important to track cumulative take of all species, they cautioned that one size does not fit all in terms of tracking take. For some species, Service biologists said, systematically tracking cumulative take has not been critical, either because very few consultations have occurred with little to no take anticipated, or the Service has good information on the species' status through other sources. For other species, however, such as those that are frequently consulted on and wide-ranging, Service biologists believed that having a more systematic take-tracking method was warranted. The lack of systematic means to track cumulative take for some species, and the resulting gap in knowledge of the species' status, exposes the Service to vulnerabilities, including the threat of litigation and unobserved declines in species. The Service has been developing various databases for more systematically tracking cumulative take, though their development largely depends on resources not yet available in the Service's budget.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To increase the Service's institutional knowledge and understanding of the effects on species of actions subject to formal consultations under the Endangered Species Act, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a simple and cost-effective method for systematically tracking all required monitoring reports, such as adding an additional field to the existing TAILS database.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) developed a web-based system, available to the public, called the Information, Planning, and Conservation (IPaC) decision support system. IPaC serves as a conservation planning tool for streamlining the environmental review process. The system allows users the ability to explore, at a landscape level, whether threatened or endangered species may exist in a certain area or may be affected by a proposed project. When projects are approved by FWS through the Section 7 consultation process, information on the project, including any associated monitoring reports, will be entered into the IPaC system, allowing FWS to systematically track monitoring reports.

    Recommendation: To increase the Service's institutional knowledge and understanding of the effects on species of actions subject to formal consultations under the Endangered Species Act, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to continue to develop existing databases, in as strategic and expeditious a manner as possible, to enable systematic tracking of cumulative take for all species affected by formal consultations.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) Information, Planning, and Conservation (IPaC) decision support system is being developed in such a way that the agency will be able to monitor all projects in a particular area, including information on all anticipated take-this will allow FWS to systematically track cumulative take for threatened or endangered species both over the area and rolled up over a species' range.

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