How Federal Employees Implement the Endangered Species Act
From Robert Lackey
Elizabeth R. Jackson and Dr. Robert T. Lackey discuss the challenges of implementing the Endangered Species Act (ESA). ESA grants legal automatic standing to any individual or party willing to challenge a species status finding in court. As a result, the legislation has become a controversial and powerful tool leveraged in political battles and legal disputes that go far beyond the narrow confines of conservation science. Bureaucrats in charge of implementing the ESA face unrelenting challenges about their recommendations and decisions from political conflict and criticisms of the law itself while the list of at-risk species continues to increase. I shadowed professionals from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society (AFS/WD), and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) in virtual meetings and interviewed them in one-on-one conversations to better understand how ESA bureaucrats deal with the stress of ESA implementation while upholding their civil servant duties to be impartial in their decision-making. I extracted several lessons from these observations about the candid realities of how civil servants manage stressful conflicts when implementing the ESA under constant scrutiny and political pressures. These lessons include: (1) Federal and state wildlife employees have difficulty compartmentalizing their personal policy and political preferences; (2) FWS staff are uncomfortable providing a finding when there is insufficient data to do a scientifically rigorous job of implementing the law; (3) Federal and state employees welcome participants to share their experiential knowledge but its use is highly limited; (4) FWS employees believe their listing recommendations should be the key policy driver and not court-ordered decision; (5) The major long-term policy drivers of species distribution or abundance are generally outside the purview of the ESA and this greatly frustrates FWS staff; and (6) Implementation of the ESA in the decision-making process reflects societal values rather than technical science, and ESA bureaucrats are exasperated when their species determinations are not followed. Overall, ESA implementation will continue to be stressful for bureaucrats implementing the law as continuous litigation and ecological constraints preclude species recovery.