Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund: NOAA Should Track Its Endangered Species Act and Lacey Act Collections and Request Any Required Deposits
The Endangered Species Act established a fund to provide grants to states and territories for the conservation of endangered and threatened species. Treasury is required to make deposits into the fund when the amount NOAA and FWS collect for violations of certain laws exceeds $500,000.
However, we found that NOAA is not requesting that Treasury make deposits to the fund because it isn't tracking the money it collects for these violations. In contrast, between 2014 and 2017 FWS requested that Treasury make deposits of about $8 million.
We recommended that NOAA track its collections and request that Treasury make required deposits into the fund.
Grizzly bears—listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act
Photo of grizzly bears, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act
What GAO Found
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) established the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund (Fund) to provide grants to states and territories for the conservation of endangered and threatened species on nonfederal lands, among other things. Under section 11(d) of the act, the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) makes deposits from the General Fund of the U.S. Treasury to the Fund when violations of the ESA or the Lacey Act result in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) collecting fines, penalties, and property forfeiture proceeds (i.e., collections) above the $500,000 statutory threshold.
GAO found that NOAA has not been tracking its collections specific to ESA and Lacey Act violations, nor has it requested that Treasury make any deposits to the Fund under section 11(d). According to NOAA officials, they have not done so because the agency is authorized to deposit all collections it receives for violations of the marine resource laws it enforces—including the ESA and Lacey Act—into a single asset forfeiture fund. As a result, agency officials said NOAA has not tracked the specific laws under which individual collections were made. NOAA officials agreed, however, that to facilitate implementation of section 11(d), it may be feasible for them to track their collections specific to ESA and Lacey Act violations, such as by adopting an approach similar to that of the FWS. According to FWS officials, as FWS receives collections for ESA and Lacey Act violations, officials track those amounts in FWS’s financial system.
Because NOAA does not track its collections specific to ESA and Lacey Act violations, the agency cannot calculate and notify Treasury when a deposit needs to be made into the Fund. Treasury officials said they rely on NOAA and FWS to track the amounts the agencies have collected above the $500,000 statutory threshold for Fund deposits. NOAA officials said the agency did not request that Treasury make deposits in fiscal years 2014 to 2017, and Treasury officials confirmed that they did not receive requests from NOAA or make deposits to the Fund based on NOAA’s ESA and Lacey Act collections during this period. In contrast, FWS requested that Treasury make deposits equal to the amounts FWS collected above the $500,000 statutory threshold, and Treasury made corresponding deposits to the Fund each year from fiscal years 2014 through 2017, for a total of approximately $7.6 million across the period.
Based on three NOAA law enforcement cases GAO examined, it appears that NOAA had collections in one case that by itself may have exceeded the $500,000 threshold for a required deposit to the Fund. Specifically, NOAA collected almost $650,000 in one 2015 case for violations of multiple laws, including the Lacey Act. If the $500,000 statutory threshold for ESA and Lacey Act collections was met, then a deposit to the Fund would have been required. Without a means for NOAA to track its collections specific to ESA and Lacey Act violations and request that Treasury make any needed deposits, the Fund may not receive some statutorily required deposits.
Why GAO Did This Study
The ESA aims to conserve threatened and endangered species and the ecosystems upon which they depend, and the Lacey Act prohibits the transportation and sale of plants, fish, and wildlife taken in violation of U.S., state, or foreign law, among other things. NOAA primarily enforces the ESA and the Lacey Act for most marine species and anadromous fish, and FWS primarily enforces those two laws for terrestrial, freshwater, and bird species. As a result, both agencies may make collections for ESA or Lacey Act violations that trigger a required deposit to the Fund. Examples of ESA and Lacey Act violations that could result in collections include the killing of endangered marine mammals and the sale of these animals or their parts.
This report provides information on the extent to which NOAA tracks its collections specific to ESA and Lacey Act violations and requests that Treasury make any statutorily required deposits to the Fund. GAO reviewed the ESA provision requiring deposits into the Fund based on the amount of collections for ESA and Lacey Act violations. GAO also reviewed available documentation from NOAA and FWS on how they track collections for ESA and Lacey Act violations. Further, GAO reviewed documentation on deposits Treasury made to the Fund from fiscal years 2014 through 2017. GAO also reviewed a nongeneralizable sample of three NOAA law enforcement cases that were closed from fiscal years 2014 to 2017 to identify whether those cases may have resulted in collections for ESA and Lacey Act violations that exceeded $500,000.
The NOAA Administrator should develop and implement a mechanism to track agency collections for ESA and Lacey Act violations and request that the Secretary of the Treasury make any required deposits to the Fund. The agency concurred with GAO’s recommendation.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration||The NOAA Administrator should develop and implement a mechanism to track agency collections for ESA and Lacey Act violations and request that the Secretary of the Treasury make any required deposits to the Fund. (Recommendation 1)||
The Department of Commerce concurred with this recommendation. As of March 2019, NOAA took steps to address this recommendation. Specifically, NOAA created two additional codes in its financial system to track collections associated with Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Lacey Act violations. NOAA also developed and provided written guidance to its Office of Law Enforcement divisions regarding these new codes, which the divisions are to use when depositing monies into NOAA's Asset Forfeiture Fund. Based on these changes, NOAA reported it is now able to assess the year-end balance of the Asset Forfeiture Fund to determine if the amounts exceed $500,000, which would then trigger a request to the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) to make a deposit into the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund. For the 2018 calendar year, NOAA's collections associated with ESA and Lacey Act violations were below $500,000, therefore NOAA did not make a request to Treasury.