The iconic Mexican spotted owl is in the news again. A judge in Tucson, Ariz., ruled in September that the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are not tracking the threatened owl’s range-wide population numbers. The parties to the lawsuit worked out an agreement that allows most activities that do not harm the owls to proceed, including fuel wood collection and Christmas tree cutting.
Yet, a significant story may be overlooked with all the consternation and hand-wringing over the spotted owl lawsuit. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s own reports to Congress, hundreds of endangered species receive less than $1,000 annually for recovery, and many receive no funding at all. In addition, there are approximately 500 imperiled animals and plants still awaiting a decision on whether they need protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The Mexican spotted owl is exhibit one for this failure. We can manage forests for natural fire, where appropriate, and protect spotted owl at the same time, but the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife must start monitoring the owl’s numbers across its range so we know the effects on this bellwether bird. The agencies claim, and rightly so, they do not have the necessary funds.
The Mexican spotted owl lawsuit is yet another clarion call to Congress to fully fund the Endangered Species Act.
The Endangered Species Act is widely considered the strongest law in the world for conserving imperiled wildlife, pulling iconic species like the black-footed ferret and California condor back from the brink of extinction and setting hundreds on the path to recovery. Yet less than 25 percent of funding needed to recover listed species has been provided in recent decades.
Several studies have concluded that annual species recovery spending should be $1.6 billion to $2.3 billion. The need for increased funding has been echoed by more than 1,600 scientists in a recent letter published in Science.
The spotted owl lawsuit is an opening for all the parties to hammer out an agreement that benefits everyone.
In the short term, New Mexico’s U.S. senators, Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, can work to secure the funds for a scientifically defensible, population monitoring program that both agencies commit to in writing, and the plaintiffs can ask the judge to allow forest restoration to proceed now.
In the long term, Congress needs to fully fund the Endangered Species Act. Prioritizing funding for the ESA and other conservation programs would accelerate the successes of protecting biodiversity and ensuring a stable, resilient Earth.
Bryan Bird is the Southwest Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife. He lives in Santa Fe.