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Highlights

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 protects species facing extinction (endangered species) or likely to face extinction (threatened species) and the ecosystems upon which they depend. The act has long been a lightning rod for political debate about the extent to which the nation's natural resources should be protected and how best to protect them. Implementation of the act has also been the subject of numerous lawsuits that have consumed significant program resources. Since the act's inception, about 1,300 domestic species have been placed on the list of threatened and endangered species. Supporters of the act claim it is an indication of the act's success that only 9 of these species have gone extinct; particularly, since by the time they are listed species, they are often in critical condition. Critics, on the other hand, counter that it is an indication of the act's failure that only 17 of these species have "recovered," or improved to the point that they no longer need the act's protection. However, we believe that these numbers, by themselves, are not a good gauge of the act's success or failure; additional information on when, if at all, a species can be expected to fully recover and be removed from the list would provide needed context for a fair evaluation of the act's performance. Similarly, estimates of the total costs to recover the species would be necessary to evaluate whether sufficient resources have been devoted to recovery efforts. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), collectively referred to as "the services," are the federal agencies responsible for ensuring implementation of the Endangered Species Act. The act generally requires the services to develop and implement recovery plans for the conservation and survival of endangered and threatened species. As of January 2006, the services had finalized and approved 558 recovery plans covering 1,049 species, or about 82 percent of the 1,272 endangered or threatened species protected in the United States. Proposed amendments to the Endangered Species Act are under consideration, and Congress has asked us to provide information on the recovery plans themselves and the progress made on their implementation to help facilitate this effort. To address these issues, for a randomly selected sample of 107 recovery plans, we identified the extent to which plans included (1) overall time and cost estimates to recover species and (2) the three key elements set forth in the 1988 amendment. We determined the plans' time and cost estimates and the extent to which they contain the key elements based on information contained in the plans. We also conducted work on a group of 30 selected species to determine the factors affecting the length of recovery and the role that recovery plans have played in the species' progress toward recovery. On February 8, 2006, we briefed Congressional staff on our findings relating to our work addressing the 107 recovery plans. At Congressional request, we are transmitting with this report the briefing slides that summarized our observations

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Commerce To facilitate measuring the success of the Endangered Species Act and provide policy makers with valuable information for identifying resource needs, the Secretaries of the Interior and Commerce should direct the services to report estimates of the time and cost needed to recover species in a single location that is easily accessible by Congress and the public, (e.g., in the biennial recovery reports to Congress). To accomplish this task, the Secretaries of the Interior and Commerce should ensure that the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, respectively, implement their current recovery planning guidance when drafting or revising recovery plans so that plans routinely estimate the overall time and cost to recover species.
Closed - Implemented
In our April 2006 report "Endangered Species: Time and Costs Required to Recover Species are Largely Unknown," we found that although the Endangered Species Act requires and Department of Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) guidance states that recovery plans should include time and cost estimates for recovery, most recovery plans did not. We recommended that (1) NMFS implement their current recovery planning guidance when drafting or revising recovery plans so that plans routinely estimate the overall time and cost to recovery species; and (2) services report this information in a single location (e.g., in the biennial recovery reports to Congress). In response, (1) in May 2006, NMFS issued a memorandum reiterating that estimates of the overall time and cost to recover species be included in all new and revised recovery plans; and (2) the "Report to Congress on the Recovery of Threatened and Endangered Species, Fiscal Years 2005-2006", included time and cost estimates for species for which recovery plans contain such estimates.
Department of the Interior To facilitate measuring the success of the Endangered Species Act and provide policy makers with valuable information for identifying resource needs, the Secretaries of the Interior and Commerce should direct the services to report estimates of the time and cost needed to recover species in a single location that is easily accessible by Congress and the public, (e.g., in the biennial recovery reports to Congress). To accomplish this task, the Secretaries of the Interior and Commerce should ensure that the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, respectively, implement their current recovery planning guidance when drafting or revising recovery plans so that plans routinely estimate the overall time and cost to recover species.
Closed - Implemented
In our April 2006 report "Endangered Species: Time and Costs Required to Recover Species are Largely Unknown," we found that although the Endangered Species Act required and the Department of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) guidance states that recovery plans must include total time and cost estimates for recovery, most recovery plans do not include all of these factors. We recommended (1) that FWS implement their current recovery planning guidance when drafting or revising recovery plans so that plans routinely estimate the overall time and cost to recovery species; and (2)that the services report this information in a single location (e.g., in the biennial recovery reports to Congress). In response (1) in January 2008, FWS issued a memorandum to its regional offices reiterating the need to routinely estimate the overall time and cost to recover species in all new and revised recovery plans, and (2) the "Report to Congress on the Recovery of Threatened and Endangered Species, Fiscal Years 2005-2006", included time and cost estimates for species for which recovery plans contain such estimates.
Department of Commerce To meet the Endangered Species Act's requirement that recovery plans, to the maximum extent practicable, include recovery criteria and, to not expose the services to a higher-than-necessary risk of litigation and their attendant costs, the Secretaries of the Interior and Commerce should direct the services to include in recovery planning guidance, direction that all new and revised recovery plans have either recovery criteria evidencing consideration of all five delisting factors or a statement regarding why it is not practicable to do so.
Closed - Implemented
In our April 2006 report "Endangered Species: Time and Costs Required to Recover Species are Largely Unknown," we found that although the Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires that the services including the Department of Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to incorporate measurable criteria for removing species and that the courts have found that the ESA requires the services to address five delisting factors in designing recovery criteria, most plans did not include the factors. We recommended that NMFS include in recovery planning guidance direction that all new and revised recovery plans have either recovery criteria or a statement why it is not practical to do so. In response to our recommendation, in May 2006, NMFS revised its interim guidance and issued a memorandum directing that the recovery plans include evidence that all five delisting factors were considered and state if a factor is not considered a threat to the species.
Department of the Interior To meet the Endangered Species Act's requirement that recovery plans, to the maximum extent practicable, include recovery criteria and, to not expose the services to a higher-than-necessary risk of litigation and their attendant costs, the Secretaries of the Interior and Commerce should direct the services to include in recovery planning guidance, direction that all new and revised recovery plans have either recovery criteria evidencing consideration of all five delisting factors or a statement regarding why it is not practicable to do so.
Closed - Implemented
In our April 2006 report "Endangered Species: Time and Costs Required to Recover Species are Largely Unknown," we found that although the Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires that the services including the Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to incorporate measurable criteria for removing species and that the courts have found that the ESA requires FWS to address five delisting factors in designing recovery criteria, most plans did not include all of these factors. We recommended that FWS include in recovery planning guidance direction that all new and revised recovery plans have either recovery criteria evidencing consideration of all five delisting factors or a statement why it is not practical to do so. Based on GAO's recommendation, in January 2008, FWS issued a memorandum to its regional offices directing the recovery plans to include evidence that all five delisting factors were considered and state if a factor is not considered a threat to the species.

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