The purpose of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is to conserve populations of
threatened and endangered plants and animals and ecosystems on which they depend.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service
(NMFS) are responsible for administering the ESA and for planning recovery efforts
for listed species. Typically, recovery plans outline specific actions that,
when successfully completed, are expected to recover a species to the point that
it can be delisted. As of 1998, about 500 recovery plans had been written and
approved by the USFWS. Among these, 420 covered single species. In recent years
increasing effort has been directed toward producing multi-species recovery plans.
In all, 926 species were covered by existing plans in 1998.
The Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), with the full cooperation of USFWS, undertook
a project to review and characterize existing recovery plans. The principal goals of the
recovery plan review project were to compile an extensive detailed database on the content
and characteristics of recovery plans, and to conduct quantitative analyses of these
data to make useful recommendations for how the effectiveness and scientific
rigor of recovery planning efforts could be improved. The project also provided
a unique opportunity to undertake a large collaboration among graduate students and faculty
at 19 different universities, and to facilitate communication between academic scientists
and USFWS policy makers and resource managers.
The project began in September 1998 with development of a detailed questionnaire
that was used as the primary tool for data collection. The data-collection
Instrument (as the questionnaire was called) guided reviewers to consider and
record data about a broad range of topics regarding the attributes and information
contained in each recovery plan. General topics included:
The Instrument was used to ensure
consistent and comprehensive review of each recovery plan. The Instrument
was reviewed and finalized at a workshop in Washington, D.C. by USFWS biologists,
representatives of environmental and industry NGO's, and faculty members who
would lead recovery plan review seminars. The complete Instrument can be viewed
on the Data Collection page.
- descriptive attributes of the plan and the species it covered,
- species biology,
- threats to the species,
- prescribed management actions,
- plan administration, and
- the criteria against which recovery would be measured.
Recovery plans for 181 species were reviewed during the project. The sample
represented about 20% of all recovery plans, and was stratified to include plans
for different taxonomic groups (vertebrates, invertebrates and plants), revised
and unrevised recovery plans, single-species and multi-species recovery plans, and
plans approved over a range of years (1977 to 1998).
The task of reviewing each recovery plan and recording data in the Instrument
was divided among 20 graduate seminars at 19 universities during the first half
of 1999. (See the Project
Participants page for a complete list of participating universities and
individuals.) Each seminar group was randomly assigned 5 or 10 plans. Using
only the information presented in the recovery plan and the
original listing document for the species, seminar participants recorded more than
2600 specific data about each recovery plan. Some additional data on plan implementation
and species status were provided by USFWS biologists familiar with the species,
and gleaned from USFWS biannual reports to Congress on the recovery program. Data
were compiled into a central database through an online interface to the project
website, and are publicly available on the Data page.
Prior to reviewing recovery plans, data collection efforts were
calibrated by having each university independently review the recovery plan for
one species, Kokia drynarioides. Analyses of these data are presented on
the Data Collection page. Consistency was maintained during
plan reviews through a project website and an email listserv on which clarifications
to uncertainties were posted.
After all plans had been reviewed and data compiled, two workshops were held at
the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) in Santa Barabara,
CA. The workshops were attended by student and faculty representatives from each
seminar group. The purpose of these workshops was to initiate analyses of the
recovery plan database. At the first workshop, participants were divided into
working groups to conduct preliminary analyses of the most striking patterns expected
or observed in the database. At the second workshop, after reviewing the preliminary
analyses, participants self-selected into "spinoff" groups, each of which pursued
more focused analyses of specific hypotheses about the recovery planning process.
Results from many of these "spinoff" projects will soon be published in a special
section of Ecological Applications.
This project successfully accomplished the most detailed and
comprehensive review of endangered species recovery plans yet conducted, and
produced a rich database of information on the content and characteristics of
these planning documents. Analyses of the database have identified many positive
aspects of recovery plans, and also suggested specific ways in which the
recovery planning process could be improved. The database will continue to be a
valuable resource for detailed quantitative information on recovery plans.
In the future, we hope that the methods used for this study will
be extended to incorporate reviews of additional recovery plans into the database.
In that way, recovery plans can be evaluated on an ongoing basis to ensure that
they are as effective and scientifically rigorous as possible.