Multi-Species Recovery Plans Fall Short

Multi-species recovery plans are all the rage — but do they work? New research suggests that they are not yet delivering on their promise.

“As currently employed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), multi-species recovery plans are less effective management tools than single-species plans,” say Alan Clark of the University of Washington in Seattle and Erik Harvey of Arizona State University in Tempe in the June issue of Ecological Applications.

The FWS has shifted its focus from single to multi-species recovery plans under the assumption that protecting habitats will also protect the species living there. Between 1982 and 1998, more than 55 percent of the ESA-listed species with recovery plans were covered by multi-species plans (536 of 963 total species). Individual multi-species plans covered up to 66 species.

In 1999, the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), in cooperation with the FWS and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, created a database for rigorous study of existing recovery plans. Participants in 20 graduate seminars at 19 universities surveyed 135 recovery plans covering 181 species. The initial results of the SCB study indicated that species covered by single-species plans were four times more likely to be progressing towards recovery than those covered by multi-species plans.

Alarmed at this result, Clark and Harvey compared single- and multi-species plans. The findings included that multi-species plans

  • stipulated fewer recovery tasks per species (about 4 vs. 25 for multi-species and single-species plans, respectively),
  • were less likely to include adaptive management (about 26 percent vs. 52 percent),
  • were revised less frequently (20 percent vs. 45 percent),
  • were more likely to cover plants (about 70 percent vs. 40 percent) and
  • reflected a poorer understanding of the individual species’ biology, such as habitat, life history, and behavior.

“At times, the FWS has lumped species into multi-species plans simply because it had insufficient information about individually listed species to draft adequate single-species plans,” say the researchers. For example, the FWS initially included several sea turtle species in the same recovery plan but ultimately developed individual plans for each species as more information became available.

Another problem with current multi-species recovery plans is that species are often grouped together based on taxonomic or geographical similarity, whereas they should be grouped together based on the similarity of the threats they face, say the researchers. “Although taxonomic and geographic similarity may provide a convenient framework for lumping species, these amalgamations make little sense if those species are not facing similar threats,” says Clark.

Noting that the FWS is overextended, Clark and Harvey say that the shift to multi-species plans makes sense in theory, given limited resources. However, even if the problems with multi-species plans are addressed, the researchers believe that single-species plans are still important. “Seriously endangered species might best be served by their inclusion in both a multi-species plan, in which the threats they face are addressed in the context of other species and/or the ecosystem, and a single-species plan, in which more detailed information peculiar to recovery of that species can be presented,” they say.

—Robin Meadows

Further Information:
Clark, J.A. and E. Harvey. 2002. Assessing multi-species recovery plans under the Endangered Species Act. Ecological Applications 12:655-662.

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