Study Reveals Insights for Keeping Species Off the Endangered Species List

University of Maryland researcher and colleagues surveyed species’ listing outcomes to find key factors associated with proactive conservation efforts.

The black-footed ferret is considered one of the most endangered mammals in the United States.

Image Credit: Ryan Moehring / USFWS

July 11, 2023 Kimbra Cutlip

A recent study, led by University of Maryland Associate Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Becky Epanchin-Niell, identified key conditions associated with pre-emptive conservation, defined as proactive measures to preserve a species before it receives an endangered species listing. The study was published July 11, 2023, in the journal Conservation Biology.

The evaluation process for a species to be listed as threatened or endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can take many years, and by the time a designation is made and protections are put in place, recovery is usually a steep uphill battle. In recent decades, conservationists have been emphasizing the idea of pre-emptive conservation, not only to prevent an at-risk species from becoming more imperiled, but also to avoid the political and economic challenges from regulations associated with the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Pre-emptive conservation can have many benefits, but it requires voluntary action by landowners, policymakers and other stakeholders, which can be hard to achieve. So, it’s important to understand what conditions contribute to successful pre-emptive conservation.

Epanchin-Niell and her colleagues found that earlier intervention—meaning putting a species up for endangered status evaluation before it reaches a critical point of vulnerability—was associated with successful pre-emptive conservation actions. This aligns with the expectation that people are more motivated to participate in conservation when they feel their efforts have a greater chance of success.

“In general, the longer you delay putting a species up for listing consideration, the further it may decline, and the harder it will be to recover,” Epanchin-Niell said.  “And there are implications to that in terms of being able to motivate people to try to help avoid the endangered list. Thus earlier intervention may be particularly beneficial.

The study also found that successful pre-emptive conservation on private lands lags behind efforts on public lands, suggesting that finding ways to further engage and motivate private landowners in conservation measures may be a good use of resources.

In addition, small range size was associated with greater pre-emptive conservation efforts, except when multiple states were involved. The more states a species range crossed, the more likely it was to be protected by preemptive conservation measures.

Teasing out the impacts of all these different factors on pre-emptive conservation should help policy makers and conservation organizations make more informed decisions about supporting conservation programs and measures.

To arrive at their results, the researchers analyzed listing determination documents  for 314 species that were considered for endangered status from 1996 to 2018. Of those species, 73 were ultimately not listed as threatened or endangered because of conservation actions that were put in place. The team then analyzed various factors associated with the listing outcomes to determine potential social, economic, ecological and demographic conditions that were most strongly associated with those 73 non-listed species.

The researchers’ next step will be to evaluate their data to understand the various players involved in pre-emptive conservation, including the type and level of partnerships and collaborations that may have impacted endangered species listing outcomes.