Species recovery plans have multiplied quickly since the Endangered Species Act was spawned 25 years ago. But there's still a question of how well the more than 900 species listed as endangered or threatened are recovering.
Now a University of Washington zoologist is spearheading a national effort to review 200 recovery plans in detail. It is the most comprehensive review so far, and ultimately could bring a scientific appraisal of how well the recovery plans work.
"By gathering this detailed history of recovery plans, we expect we'll be able to say quite a bit about how they've evolved over time and their effectiveness," said Dee Boersma, a UW zoology professor who is president of the Society of Conservation Biology, which is directing the review.
As of the end of March, 519 recovery plans covering 357 animal and 568 plant species had been filed since the Endangered Species Act was passed by Congress in 1973, according to figures from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the act. More than 400 of the plans cover a single species.
Listings have included obscure creatures such as the Tooth Cave spider in Texas; Hawaii's state bird, the nene, or Hawaiian Goose; a wide variety of plants, such as solano grass in California; and the national symbol, the bald eagle, which remains a threatened species in the lower 48 states.
Since last fall, 20 teams of graduate students at 19 universities have been poring over the details of 200 recovery plans, answering thousands of questions about each. Some three dozen scientists and students, led by Boersma and former UW zoology professor Peter Kareiva, now with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will meet Wednesday through Saturday in Santa Barbara, Calif., to begin going over the results. They expect to produce the first detailed analysis of a large number of recovery plans promulgated under the act.
"Nobody has really done a thorough review to characterize the recovery plans," Boersma said. What isn't clear, she said, is how the recovery plans differ from each other based on factors such as the type of species, how old the plan is, whether it covers a single species or more than one, and whether a plan has been revised.
"We need to look at a number of factors, including the reason the species became endangered, the region of the country where recovery plans are in force and perhaps the popularity of the species involved," she said.
Scientists also will try to determine whether plans have been implemented completely, how revised plans differ from the originals, and whether plans are more likely to be implemented if the species are widely known by the public.
The Endangered Species Act is intended to protect and restore populations of threatened and endangered plants and animals and their habitats. The Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service are responsible for implementing recovery plans, which typically outline a number of steps that should allow a species to recover to the point that it is no longer considered threatened or endangered.
Gordon Orians, an emeritus UW zoology professor, with assistance from UW graduate student John Hoekstra, designed the detailed questionnaire being used by graduate students for the evaluation. Fish and Wildlife Service officials helped fine-tune the document.
Since September, each team of 10 to 20 students working in a graduate seminar has been examining 10 randomly selected recovery plans, along with endangered species listing documents and Fish and Wildlife Service reports to Congress. Answers to thousands of items on the questionnaire are being entered into a database on the Internet so scientists and students at all the participating institutions have access to all the data.
The data is the basis for the broader characterization and analysis of the plans at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara this week. In June, scientists and students again will gather at NCEAS to talk about how to improve the plans and the species-recovery process. They also will analyze the expertise of those who write recovery plans.
"This is laying the groundwork of future, more extensive review of the recovery planning process," Boersma said.
Boersma can be reached May 10-15 at NCEAS, 805-892-2500. She will be in the field and unavailable from May 16 until June 1 when she returns to her UW office, where she can be reached at 206-616-2185 or firstname.lastname@example.org