Obama’s mixed impact on endangered species

The administration delisted more species, but ultimately weakened the act itself.


During Obama’s presidency, 29 species recovered enough to be taken off the endangered species list, more than under all four presidents before him (George H. W. Bush did not delist any species). And 340 were added, far more than under his predecessor, George W. Bush. But the Endangered Species Act itself has changed during the Obama years, and critics say that despite the impressive numbers, it’s actually become more business-friendly and less effective at protecting wildlife.

The latest change came in October, when a core part of the law, the citizen petitioning process, was changed. Anyone can ask the federal government to consider listing a species, but the new rule requires petitioners to first notify the states in which the species is found. In the past, environmental groups have petitioned for hundreds of species at a time, a useful strategy if many species in an ecosystem faced the same threats. Now, they must file for one at a time.

To explore our interactive graphic, click on an illustration to see more details about that species, or navigate all of the species delisted under the Endangered Species Act from Reagan through Obama. 

The change was meant to improve the petitions’ quality, says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which processes them. But it also could mean that more petitions will be filed — and that in turn could strain the budget of both Fish and Wildlife and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which handles marine species.

Both agencies frequently miss deadlines, triggering lawsuits. In an attempt to break that cycle, in September they created a seven-year work plan to prioritize species. Yet that doesn’t address a chronic lack of funding, and could create a backlog of lower-priority species. Brett Hartl, director of endangered species policy for the Center for Biological Diversity, says, “You have to hope that the species you put at the back of the list isn’t going to go extinct while it’s waiting.”

Anna V. Smith is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets

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