Scientists Find Serious Holes in Endangered Species Agreements

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(01/15/1999) - A major scientific analysis of habitat conservation plans for endangered species confirms conservationists' concerns about the plans and highlights the need for improved protection of endangered species.

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis released the study's findings today in "Using Science in Habitat Conservation Plans," which covers habitat conservation plans (HCPs) across the country. A group of 119 independent scientists from eight universities examined 43 HCPs in detail and 208 HCPs more generally. The group developed the first comprehensive database on HCPs and conducted quantitative analysis of nationwide trends.

The report claims that critical scientific information about endangered species often is not available for HCPs. It also highlights a major lack of biological monitoring to determine what effect each HCP has on endangered species. The report also finds that HCPs often rely upon unproven endangered species management techniques, posing risks to the species.

"These findings unquestionably call for a substantial improvement in the scientific quality of HCPs" said Laura Hood, a biologist at Defenders of Wildlife and an author of the report. Hood also authored a 1998 Defenders of Wildlife report on HCPs, entitled Frayed Safety Nets. According to Hood, "This new report is consistent with our own analysis, which showed that HCPs are based upon inadequate information and pose greater risk to species that are already declining."

"In the final analysis, today's HCPs permit the authorized destruction of endangered species habitat," said Bill Snape, legal director at Defenders of Wildlife. "HCPs must have solid scientific information and assured protections for species. This study confirms our greatest fear that this is not the case."

HCPs are legally binding agreements under which a landowner adopts conservation measures in exchange for federal government permission to develop property even if some endangered wildlife and their habitats are destroyed in the process. The agreements are the main tools now used by the Clinton Administration to manage endangered and threatened species on nonfederal lands. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approved more than 240 HCPs, and up to 200 more are in the works nationwide.

The group of scientists did find some encouraging trends. It found that often "when data were available, the overall quality of their use was high." Some improvement may also occur over time in the scientific adequacy of HCPs.

Nevertheless, the study found that "particular mitigation measures commonly suffered from an absence of data indicating they were likely to succeed, leading to a situation in which ‘unproven' mitigation measures were relied on in the HCPs." The group also found that "in many cases, crucial, yet basic, information on species is unavailable for the preparers of HCPs." The report argues that not enough resources are devoted to providing the science necessary for endangered species management and recommends a major investment of funds into building scientific databases that could help make HCPs more scientifically sound.

Peter Kareiva from the University of Washington and Frances James from Florida State University and AIBS led the study. For a copy of the report, please contact the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.


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