A common tern with a small fish in its beak.

A common tern carries a fish on Nickerson Beach on July 31, 2022 in Lido Beach, New York, United States.

(Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

When Protecting Biodiversity Is a Government Afterthought

Systemically underfunded federal agencies make terrible choices—and our world pays the price.

Last week, a new comprehensive study of almost 32,000 populations of 5,230 species around the world estimated that wildlife on earth has decreased by almost 70 percent since 1970. The mind can't really wrap around the scale of loss conveyed by this number.

Bill McKibbenframed this loss in terms of a "fast-emptying ark," and a world growing "quieter by the day." Another working of this metaphor would have humans crowding onto the ark, other species tossed overboard or crushed underfoot. In 2020, the weight of human-made materials surpassed the weight of all life on earth for the first time. As Atlantic writer Ed Yong wrote in an extraordinary piece on animal perception, humans have "filled the silence with noise and the night with light," have remade the earth in fundamental ways. But like every other species, we depend on other species for our survival. We are not exempt from the mass extinction debt the earth is accruing. The question is: will we act to protect the magnificently complex ecosystems upon which everything depends?

As climate crises and biodiversity loss accelerate, the Endangered Species Act will be a far more important tool for preserving national stability than a nuclear weapons program.

That question has no one final answer. It has already been answered thousands of times, by voters and donors and autocrats and shareholders, by soldiers and protestors and lawyers and landowners, in transfer after transfer of dollars. Brazilian voters have the chance to offer a massively consequential answer on October 30, when they will choose between presidential candidates Lula and Bolsonaro, with the fate of the Amazon Rainforest hanging in the balance. Lula reduced Amazon deforestation by 80 percent when he was last president, while Bolsonaro has accelerated Amazon deforestation by 75 percent from the previous decade.

A Look at Endangered Species Act Appropriations

It's worth looking at how the US government spends over a trillion and a half dollars in discretionary spending each year through this same lens. Unfortunately, even a cursory glance at federal spending makes clear that the ongoing sixth mass extinction event is barely a blip on the government's radar.

Last Wednesday, The Guardianreported on a new study which found that the US's foremost law for protecting biodiversity, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, has long been undermined by inadequate resources for its implementation. Though over a thousand species are listed as endangered under the law (which is itself a gross underrepresentation of the number of species in need of protection), only 54 species have fully recovered. As it turns out, the federal appropriations process deserves a large share of the blame:

"The new report, which examined data from the Federal Register, found that since 1985, one of the main sources of funding for ESA has decreased by almost 50% when measured on a per species basis. Although the law has been shown to be effective when it comes to keeping species from going extinct (it has saved over 99% of listed species from extinction, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service), it has not been as successful when it comes to species recovery. The authors explained that typically by the time a species has received protection, it has already reached 'dangerously low population sizes', which makes recovery extremely difficult."

The study looked specifically at the money allocated to the US Fish and Wildlife Service through annual congressional appropriations bills for resource management and implementing Section 4 of the Endangered Species Act. Section 4 outlines how the agency should determine species to be endangered or threatened. For 2023, the draft appropriations bills from the House and Senate would cap spending on implementing Section 4 of the Endangered Species Act at just under $26 million.

$26 million. That's a minuscule amount of money compared to practically any branch of the government. It looks even more devastatingly trivial in the face of the Pentagon's profligate waste. Take the cost of one new nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile: $264 billion over its lifetime. That's over ten thousand timesthe money allowed to be spent on endangered species protection under Section 4, in order to fund a dangerous and unnecessary nuclear weapon that experts say raises the risk of accidental nuclear war.

The Project on Government Oversight highlighted last year the Congressional Budget Office's unwillingness to even consider the "possible savings from simply scaling back (not even ending) the Pentagon's $2-trillion, three-decades-long plan to build a new generation of nuclear-armed missiles, bombers, and submarines, complete with accompanying new warheads. Scaling back such a buildup, which will only further imperil this planet, could easily save in excess of $100 billion over the next decade." Imagine what programs that actually protect public and ecological health could do with an extra $100 billion.

Every year since 1998, Congress has put a spending cap on the amount of money that the US Fish and Wildlife Service can spend on its endangered species listing program. This spending cap has a seriously deleterious effect on the agency's capacity to protect endangered species, and the agency knows it. In 2020, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that both monarch butterflies and northern spotted owls deserved to be classified as endangered--classification was "warranted," they said--but the action was "precluded by work on higher-priority listing actions." Monarch butterflies' western population has declined a staggering 99 percent, and their eastern population by 85 percent since the 1990s; northern spotted owl populations have declined somewhere between 50 and 75 percent since 1995. Still, neither is protected by the Endangered Species Act.

These are the terrible choices that systemically underfunded agencies make. In each of these findings, the Fish and Wildlife Service published this incensed note:

"...for more than two decades, the size and cost of the workload in these categories of actions have far exceeded the amount of funding available to the Service under the spending cap for completing listing and critical habitat actions under the Act. Since we cannot exceed the spending cap without violating the Anti-Deficiency Act, each year we have been compelled to determine that work on at least some actions was precluded by work on higher-priority actions."

A decade ago, overwhelmed by a massive backlog of petitions and lawsuits from environmental groups pushing the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect hundreds of fast-disappearing species, the agency responded not by asking Congress for increased resources, but by asking Congress to impose a limit on the number of species it had to consider for protection. Luckily, this limit didn't come to pass. But it underscores the longstanding importance of the fight to get agencies and congressional appropriations committees alike to stop approaching non-defense agency programs with an austerity mindset.

As climate crises and biodiversity loss accelerate, the Endangered Species Act will be a far more important tool for preserving national stability than a nuclear weapons program. Take pollinators, for instance, without whom you simply cannot grow crops. The American bumblebee population has declined by 90 percent, and nearly vanished from sixteen states. The Fish and Wildlife Service is currently reviewing whether it warrants endangered species protection. Of course, even if it's "warranted," it may be "precluded" by the deadly ignorance of those who write the budget.

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