Using Spatial Data to Improve Recovery Under the Endangered Species Act

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Many species protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) are making slow and insufficient progress towards long-term recovery. Various studies have examined the recovery planning process in order to identify related challenges and suggest improvements to science and management efforts. In 2002, Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) published a comprehensive study that provided 15 diverse recommendations for improving recovery plan quality, implementation and overall effectiveness. To increase the probability of wide-scale incorporation, these recommendations were targeted at NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service’s “Interim Endangered and Threatened Species Recovery Planning Guidance” (Interim Guidance). However, notably absent in both the SCB study and the Interim Guidance is any discussion of spatial data collection and its use for creating multi-layered maps. This is of particular concern because spatial data has increasingly been recognized for its unique potential to assist in long-term species recovery.

In order to fully assess the potential use and inclusion of spatial data within the recovery planning process, we identified three research objectives. The first objective was to assess how well SCB recommendations have been incorporated into both the Interim Guidance and individual recovery plans. This evaluation would allow us to determine the relationship between the two documents and how well recovery plans follow the Interim Guidance. The second objective was to determine the feasibility of creating a spatial tool for all species listed under the ESA given available data types and formats. While maps can aid management decisions, known data deficiencies for many species are expected to make the creation of such maps challenging. By assessing a taxonomically representative subset of species recovery plans, we could evaluate the relative availability of spatial data across different groups of species. Our third objective was to create a single-species proof-of-concept map for the development of a large-scale, online mapping tool. This process would allow us to evaluate how useful a spatial tool and online Google mapping platform could be to those interested in improving species recovery.

As a result of our analysis we conclude that the more fully a recommendation is incorporated within the Interim Guidance, the better it will be expressed within individual recovery plans. Therefore, if the Interim Guidance explicitly requires spatial data collection, more specific-specific spatial data will likely become available. Through our feasibility study we found large data gaps for all species and only 20% or less of all applicable data layers for amphibians, clams, and snails in particular. Additionally, while we found biological data most frequently, threats, recovery actions, and ESA legal requirements were largely absent in any spatial format. In order to create a diverse multi-layered map for all species, spatial data collection must be prioritized among all data categories and for low-profile species. Our proof-of- concept map for the Utah prairie dog, demonstrates that multi-layered maps can currently be created for select species after expansive data searching and mode rate use of geo-spatial programs such as ArcGIS. These maps can directly support Defender’s own internal purposes as well as uniquely support USFWS and NMFS’s ongoing efforts in spatial tool development.