Crowdsourcing the Endangered Species List

When looking after the welfare of the environment, it turns out that citizen engagement is key.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) came into law almost forty years ago and apparently has crowdsourcing baked into its success. Although creation and maintenance of the Endangered Species List falls to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, it is also heavily supplemented by the suggestions of citizen scientists, nature lovers and others who petition for a species’ listing as either threatened or endangered. This feature of the Act has been a source of contention since opponents of this condition say that FWS wastes taxpayer money in processing citizen requests. Others criticize that citizen suggestions are often motivated by political or personal agendas (i.e. – preventing urban sprawl or development, etc.).

However, a recent study that was published in Science shows that (for the most part) citizens are better at this task than their FWS counterparts. The study was conducted by Berry Brosi of Emory University and Eric Biber of  University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

The pair built a database of more than 900 species listed as threatened or endangered and categorized them as FWS or citizen-initiated. Those cases were then charted against whether the suggestion interfered with a  development project and the level of biological threat to the species, as well.

And although they discovered that, yes, indeed, citizen requests more often interfere with development projects than the FWS listings do, they also noted that citizens are better at identifying species that face a significant biological threat.

The annual rate of listing has continued to increase (at its peak, 521 listings, 65/year) up until the Bush presidency when it declined to its lowest rate ever (60 listings, 8/year). Wikipedia notes that the rate of listing is strongly correlated with citizen involvement: as agency discretion decreases and citizen involvement improves, the rate of listing also increases.

Now thinking on the accuracy of the system and the checks and balances provided to each other both by the FWS and citizen initiatives, I wonder if the FWS has any plans to update, streamline, or simplify the currently complex and lengthy process. After all, crowdsourcing is more and more a part of our common vernacular and online crowdsourcing is only getting easier.

What do you think the FWS should do? What do you think about citizen engagement on endangered species listings?

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