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Development of a species status assessment process for decisions under the U.S. Endangered Species Act

February 2, 2018

Decisions under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) require scientific input on the risk that the species will become extinct. A series of critiques on the role of science in ESA decisions have called for improved consistency and transparency in species risk assessments and clear distinctions between science input and policy application. To address the critiques and document the emerging practice of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), we outline an assessment process based on principles and practices of risk and decision analyses that results in a scientific report on species status. The species status assessment (SSA) process has three successive stages: 1) document the life history and ecological relationships of the species in question to provide the foundation for the assessment, 2) describe and hypothesize causes for the current condition of the species, and 3) forecast the species' future condition. The future condition refers to the ability of a species to sustain populations in the wild under plausible future scenarios. The scenarios help explore the species' response to future environmental stressors and to assess the potential for conservation to intervene to improve its status. The SSA process incorporates modeling and scenario planning for prediction of extinction risk and applies the conservation biology principles of representation, resiliency, and redundancy to evaluate the current and future condition. The SSA results in a scientific report distinct from policy application, which contributes to streamlined, transparent, and consistent decision-making and allows for greater technical participation by experts outside of the USFWS, for example, by state natural resource agencies. We present two case studies based on assessments of the eastern massasauga rattlesnake Sistrurus catenatus and the Sonoran Desert tortoise Gopherus morafkai to illustrate the process. The SSA builds upon the past threat-focused assessment by including systematic and explicit analyses of a species' future response to stressors and conservation, and as a result, we believe it provides an improved scientific analysis for ESA decisions.

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