In September 1998, the Society for Conservation Biology launched a national review of recovery plans for species listed under the Endangered Species Act. The following provides a synopsis of the purpose and goals of the project, as well as a brief overview of the method by which recovery plans were reviewed. More detailed description and discussion of the project can be found in:

Hoekstra, J. M., Clark, J. A., Fagan, W. F. and Boersma, P. D. 2002. A comprehensive review of Endangered species Act recovery plans. Ecological Applications 12:630-640.

Boersma, P. D., Kareiva, P., Fagan, W. F., Clark, J. A. and Hoekstra, J. M. 2001. How good are endangered species recovery plans? BioScience 51:643-650.

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:

  • descriptive attributes of the plan and the species it covered,
  • species biology,
  • threats to the species,
  • prescribed management actions,
  • monitoring,
  • plan administration, and
  • the criteria against which recovery would be measured.
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.

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.

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Last updated: 9 August, 2002.