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A growing list of endangered species creates hard choices

There are only about 65 adult bog turtles left in Massachusetts.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Massachusetts’ state bird, the black-capped chickadee, is among scores of birds expected to disappear from parts or all of the state by 2050. The North Atlantic right whale, which appears on some of the state’s license plates, has seen its population decline by a quarter over the past decade. And the dwindling number of bog turtles, a squat reptile the size of a cellphone, means only about 65 adults are left in the state.

All of them are threatened by climate change.

A landmark United Nations report in 2019 found that the loss of plant and animal species around the world will increase dramatically in the coming years — at a rate unprecedented in human history — with as many as a million threatened with extinction.


The danger of such a steep loss of the planet’s biodiversity was underscored last week when the federal government took the rare step of proposing to declare the ivory-billed woodpecker and 22 other species extinct. In the nearly 50 years since the Endangered Species Act became law, only 11 species have been declared extinct, a controversial designation that means scientists have given up hope of finding any survivors.

Now, with a growing backlog of animals and plants proposed for state and federal endangered species lists, environmental advocates are urging the Biden administration to step up efforts to protect endangered species.

“In the past, biodiversity loss was mainly due to habitat loss from development, direct exploitation from hunting, and habitat degradation from the use of pesticides and invasive species,” said Jeffrey Collins, director of conservation science at Mass Audubon, which has urged state and federal officials to increase their budgets to protect endangered species. “Climate change is an overarching threat of an even greater order of magnitude.”


More than 38,500 species around the world have been identified as at risk of extinction — nearly quadruple the number in 2000, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. That number has grown as the health of more species has been assessed, but the global conservation organization has surveyed only about 138,000 of them, or less than 5 percent of the planet’s plants and animals.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has listed 939 plants and 727 animals in this country as either threatened or endangered. Another 27 species are candidates to be listed as threatened or vulnerable, but they have yet to receive the formal protections and resources of the Endangered Species Act. Over the next four years, the agency is required by law to evaluate the status of another 430 species.

Massachusetts, which has a separate system of classifying species in the state, has listed 217 as endangered, 108 as threatened, and another 108 as species of special concern.

Collins and others urged the Biden administration to spend more money on speeding up the process of listing species, an often politicized and bureaucratic process that now frequently takes more than a decade.

The Biden administration has proposed spending $22.3 million for the program that assesses whether species are threatened or endangered and should be added to the list — $1.5 million more than what was appropriated in the final year of the Trump administration.

“That’s not enough for the service to do what they need to do,” said Jacob Malcom, director of the Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C.


His group and others have urged Congress to more than double that budget. “That’s what the agency needs to do its work in a timely fashion,” he said.

As warming temperatures change habitats, promote the spread of invasive species and diseases, and reduce the areas where many plants and animals can take refuge from development and hunting, efforts to protect species are going to become only more urgent in the coming decades, Malcom said.

“I don’t want to seem too fatalistic, but as more and more populations decline, we’re going to need a national strategy to be able to meet this demand,” he said.

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said more must be done to insulate the process of protecting species from politics, as Republicans have often prevented species from being listed as threatened or endangered. Listing a species comes with significant protections for their habitats and can have major financial consequences for those who work near those areas.

Former president Donald Trump’s administration listed fewer species than any of his predecessors since the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973, approving only 25 in his four years in office. By contrast, President Barack Obama approved 360 in his eight years, while President George W. Bush allowed just 62 species to receive the protections in his eight years. President Bill Clinton in his two terms in office approved 523.


“The program for listing species has just been plagued by political interference, bureaucratic malaise, and a lack of funding,” Greenwald said. “That has had real consequences for species, with some going extinct waiting for protection.”

Carney Anne Nasser, a research fellow at Harvard Law School’s animal law and policy program, noted that some state lawmakers have become so fed up with the lack of federal action in recent years that they have introduced bills to extend protections to species in their state, regardless of what federal regulators decide.

“After an administration that had an all-out war on wildlife, we have to take meaningful action to right the ship, so we can prevent future species from being removed from the list because of extinction,” she said. “We should have full confidence that these decisions are being made with the best available scientific evidence, and that economics and politics aren’t interfering.”

David Abel can be reached at Follow him @davabel.