IN the middle of President Obama’s 1,600-page, $4 trillion budget it would seem a surprise that a $15 million cut in spending would immediately attract attention.
However, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., put out a statement within hours criticizing a proposed cut to funding for salmon conservation in Washington and the West. That response is a sign of how hard it is to make science-based management happen in the crucible of D.C. politics.
In truth, salmon, steelhead trout and bull trout are the best-funded of any endangered species. Six species of West Coast salmon and trout received almost 40 percent of funding over the past two decades.
In 2011, spending by all federal agencies on chinook salmon — more than $270 million — was greater than the amount spent by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trying to recover all of the more than 1,400 other species on America’s endangered species list.
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The $15-million proposed cut is a drop in the bucket for salmon conservation, but would be enough to double the funding for each of more than 600 other endangered species. This skirmish over salmon funding illustrates the larger challenges of recovering endangered wildlife in a period of ever-shrinking resources and when politics dictates where those resources go.
Those choices about funding have life-or-death consequences for species found nowhere else on Earth. The Republican member of Congress from Pasco, Wash., U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, is a lead critic of the Endangered Species Act as it is now implemented.
In a February report, the congressman and others lamented that only 2 percent of endangered species have been fully recovered in 40 years. Another 40 percent of species are stable or improving. That leaves more than half still on a path toward extinction.
The Endangered Species Act contains a mission we gave ourselves as a nation to save the creatures that are uniquely found on our shores and nowhere else. I agree with Rep. Hastings that our goal is to completely restore hundreds more of those species.
However, it is almost impossible to figure out how to do so when Congress redirects the majority of funding to a handful of species while hundreds of imperiled animals get almost nothing.
Fortunately, government agencies and scientists across the Pacific Ocean are demonstrating how countries like ours can save far more endangered wildlife by shifting resources, even with no increase in funding.
The state and federal governments of New Zealand and Australia have adopted hard-nosed approaches to endangered-species conservation focused on saving as many species per dollar of funding available.
Each country faces a similar situation to ours — thousands of endangered wildlife species, too little money to save them all at the same time, and pressing threats such as development, climate change and water scarcity.
Their experts plot out the actions needed to save each species, estimate their chances of success and how much those actions would reduce extinction risk and put the estimates together in a numbers-based approach to find the most efficient possible ways to spend public dollars to save wildlife. In New Zealand, this approach allows them to use the same funding to save 45 percent more species.
The beauty of Australia’s and New Zealand’s systematic approach to environmental decision-making is that it is transparent to policymakers and the public. They can explain how to use $15 million to deliver more recoveries or, for some species, how little benefit $15 million would provide.
Of course, such a system is only guidance and both countries still deviate from their systems when there is good reason to do so, but the presence of this transparent system forces policymakers to explain themselves. If we really want to save more of America’s unique wildlife and plant diversity, there is a lot we could learn from our allies Down Under.
Timothy Male is the former vice president of policy at Defenders of Wildlife. He has worked for Environmental Defense Fund, a wildlife foundation, and Hawaii’s conservation agency.