Leaders from the FWS issued a directive instructing officials to delist, downlist, or otherwise preclude 30 species each year from the endangered species list.
What happened: In late 2017, top leaders from the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) southeastern region issued a directive that instructed agency officials to delist, downlist, or otherwise preclude 30 species each year from the endangered species list. The directive, dubbed the “Wildly Important Goal,” was framed as a method to promote “positive, proactive conservation,” though it fails to explain how the denial of federal protections for endangered or threatened species aids conservation efforts.
Why it matters: The Endangered Species Act is an incredibly successful conservation law, preventing 99% of listed species from going extinct, and it bases its decisions solely on the best available science. Requiring that a certain number of species be excluded from these federal protections every year is, by definition, shifting the decision away from a purely science-based process to a process in which political considerations play a prominent role. When a species goes extinct, it is gone forever. Political consideration should never be allowed to determine whether a species requires additional federal protections under the Endangered Species Act.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) may have violated the Endangered Species Act’s (ESA) requirement that listing decisions be based only on the best available science, a mandate that is considered essential for the effective implementation of the Act. The magazine Pacific Standard obtained documents showing that top officials from the FWS’ southeastern region issued a directive to its staff to delist, downlist, or otherwise preclude 30 different species from the endangered species list. In 2017, this order, called “Wildly Important Goal” (or WIG), was carried out for 30 species. Leo Miranda, FWS’s southeastern regional director (at the time, the assistant regional director) requested that an additional 30 more species be delisted, downlisted, or not included on the endangered species list in 2018. Conservationists do agree that, based on the science, some of the species affected by the 2017 WIG directive are not in need of ESA protections. However, the decision to not provide ESA protections to other species on the WIG list may not be supported by the best available science.
In a series of publicly released emails from December 2017, Leo Miranda, FWS southeastern regional director (at the time, the assistant regional director), told his colleagues “Sound science will always be foremost in those kinds of decisions, but whenever we can work proactively to prevent the need to list species, that proactive work will be our first priority.” This is not how the Endangered Species Act works – the listing of a species is required to be based on science and only on science. Ordering employees to proactively prevent the listing of a species as their “first priority” goes against the very nature of the Endangered Species Act and is inconsistent with FWS’ mission statement.
An FWS spokesperson for the southeastern region responded by saying that there is “no quota system or mandatory number of delistings, downlistings, or not-warranted” findings. The FWS spokesperson reiterated in their response that the agency only makes these determinations using the best available science. The directive, the FWS spokesperson explained, is meant to “set a high bar for species recovery success.” However, internal documents suggest that sentiment was not shared across the FWS southeastern regional office. Some FWS officials received feedback that the directive “actually creates a disincentive to listing species.”
One of the most controversial decisions that was carried out, likely in part because of the 2017 WIG directive, was the decision to not include the Florida Keys Mole Skink on the endangered species list. The skink, a small pinkish-tailed lizard that only lives on the beaches of the Florida Keys, is estimated to face devastating losses in the future primarily due to rising sea levels; climate change related shifts in rainfall, temperature, and storm intensity; oceanfront developments; and predation by invasive species. In 2010, Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission listed the skink as a state-designated threatened species. A 2017 FWS assessment of the skink estimated that in 2060 up to 44 percent of the skink’s habitat could be lost to sea level rise; in 2100, 74 percent of the skink’s habitat could be lost in the worst-case scenario. Oddly, when FWS declared that the skink would not be added to the endangered species list, the agency decided to not include their own 2100 projections in the calculations. The decision to not list the Florida Keys Mole Skink on the endangered species list has caused the Center for Biological Diversity to file a notice of intent to sue the agency over the matter.
The American southeast is incredibly diverse, sporting more than two-thirds of North America’s species and it has the richest aquatic fauna of any temperate area in the world. However, the region also represents one of the most imperiled ecosystems on the planet, with the highest number of endangered and threatened species of any place in the continental United States. This is not the first time that the Trump administration has carried out actions that have attempted to dismantle or undermine endangered species protections, whether that be for the polar bear, the ocelot, the American burying beetle, 1400 endangered species jeopardized by pesticides, or failing to enforce the ESA. When the science shows that a species faces the real threat of extinction, we should be doing everything in our power to prevent that fate, not denying these protections based on the whims and fancies of political officials.