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How Much Did the U.S. Spend on the Endangered Species Act in 2012?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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steller sea lionsIt cost a little bit more to protect endangered species in 2012 than it did in 2011. If you’re a regular Extinction Countdown reader, that probably doesn’t surprise you. For one thing, everything seemed to cost more last year. But more importantly, the threats that endangered species faced in 2012 were worse than ever. The costs of those threats add up.

Let’s get to those numbers. The U.S. federal and state governments spent just more than $1.7 billion to conserve endangered and threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in fiscal year (FY) 2012 (from October 1, 2011, to September 30, 2012), according to an accounting recently published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). That’s up from $1.59 billion in FY 2011 and $1.45 billion in FY 2010.

Last year’s expenses included about $307 million to acquire conservation-critical habitats. The remaining outlay went to activities such as research, law enforcement, population censuses, transplanting animals or plants and any other activities performed by the federal or state governments “on behalf of threatened or endangered species” listed under the ESA. The vast majority of the spending came on the federal level; only $85.3 million came from the states. State spending, however, was up from $58.4 million in FY 2011. (Many states have their own endangered species laws and lists, expenses for which would not necessarily be counted in this report.)

A handful of gilled species received the lion’s share of ESA expenditures last year. Steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), which are protected in 11 separate managed populations, received funding of more than $263 million. (The ESA has options to protect endangered species subspecies as a whole or as distinct population units for a given species.) Chinook salmon (O. tshawytscha) weren’t far behind that, at $240.7 million. That species is protected under nine separate populations.

The bird species that received the most funding was the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis). This southeastern species received nearly $38 million in conservation funding. The mammal that required the most funding—$22.2 million—was the western population of Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus). Earlier this week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which administers the ESA for marine species, announced that the eastern population of Steller sea lions would be removed from the ESA now that the animals have met the criteria set in a 2008 recovery plan.

All told, 158 species out of the more than 2,000 protected under the ESA each received more than $1 million in conservation funding. Most species got far less than that. Five species received $100 or less. Dozens of species, mostly those that are located outside the country but that are still protected under the ESA, did not receive any funding at all. The species that received the least amount was an experimental population of the Cumberland bean (Villosa trabalis), a type of pearlymussel, which received just $60 in funding in 2012.

Funding for ESA activities came from almost every level of the federal government. FWS spent $199 million of its $2.429-billion budget on the ESA. NOAA invested nearly $185 million. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had the highest ESA expenses, at more than $327 million.

There are many different ways to look at these numbers, but here’s one that may put them in some perspective: the U.S. human population stood at 314, 542,177 at the end of FY 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The ESA expenditure of $1.7 billion translates to just $5.40 per person.

Of course, that’s still only a fraction of what’s truly being spent to conserve all these species. The numbers don’t include the work of NGOs or other organizations or the efforts by individuals. They also don’t include the many U.S. species that are still not protected under the ESA or the thousands of other endangered species around the world. But all the same, with a pretty high success rate of preventing species from going extinct, the ESA works out a decent bang for your buck.

Photo: David B. Ledig /U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Flickr. Public domain

Previously in Extinction Countdown:

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. ngreenwald 11:29 am 11/2/2013

    Thanks for covering this John. One important thing to remember when thinking about these figures is that many of these dollars are not so much spent to recover these species, but rather to mitigate harmful actions. The dollars spent for salmon and steelhead are a case in point. The hundreds of millions of dollars spent primarily go towards keeping the fish from going extinct with the many dams in place in the Columbia Basin for things like barging young salmon down river past reservoirs and fish crunching turbines. These dollars don’t come from the Fish and Wildlife Service budget for endangered species, which is a paltry 180 million, but from the budgets of the Bonneville Power Administration and Army Corps of Engineers. Bottom line is we need to spend much more actually recovering endangered species.

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  2. 2. jplatt 5:16 pm 11/2/2013

    Thanks, Noah. I plan on doing some follow-up articles (including one on salmon and steelhead) to examine these mitigation costs.

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  3. 3. bungay lad 9:21 am 11/5/2013

    Would it be more accurate to use the term “invested” rather than “spent”. It would seem acquisition of habitat and preservation of species like the steelhead are sound investments that will continue to pay dividends in the future. Not all the dividends will be monetary but invaluable just the same.

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