The government definition of endangered has morphed over time, and its change has coincided with the rise of environmental trial lawyers like Center for Biological Diversity, who make their money suing government over things and getting paid in settlements. And data show the numbers of listings and therefore settlements really move based on the political party in the White House. Which is terrible science.
Logically, an endangered species is at risk of extinction. If the public hears that there are only 2,000 sea otters left, they know that is endangered. When Republicans heard that in 1911, President Taft mobilized an international ban on hunting them and they have rebounded nicely and are now at 100,000.
To make improvements before it gets to crisis levels, the government created a scientific definition of endangered n 1966. Yet that definition of endangered changed thanks to lawyers simply changing the levels which deemed a species "at risk." And getting their definition rather than the science one turned into law.
The problem is the U.S. Endangered Species Act was written by lawyers - it has no neutral scientific basis
The law for preventing species endangerment in the U.S. is the Endangered Species Act. Virtually no one is or should be opposed to preventing extinction. The problem is that the modern interpretations are written by government employees in collaboration with environmental trial lawyers and it often defines an endangered species in broad terms. A species "in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range" can be a few or a lot depending on who determines what significant means. If most scientists say 30 percent and a few say 5 percent, that is terrible science - but it is how many endangered species got their listings.
We have no idea about 99.999999 percent of species that have ever lived, what they were, why they went extinct, or anything else, but if something evolved and still lives, we can use that as a proxy. A proxy such an average vertebrate species and its extinction risk during the agricultural era, the last 10,000 years, when mankind began to farm and ranch and grow.
Neutral scientists now say that a species is in the extinction zone if "a significant portion of its range" - 30 percent - is wiped out, whereas environment lawyers and a few scientists say 5 percent over 100 years. That is who career bureaucrats often listen to. The reason is unclear; are government employees worried if they don't manufacture new crises U.S. Fish and Wildlife will be wiped out? Once in 25 years has a government agency gone away, and it was two dozen people that consistently wrote reports for Congress a year late.
Should endangered include a species only recently discovered by western zoologists who get it published in a journal, and may only have a few samples? Well, it is. That is why averages are terrible for science. It's like using BMI to tell a champion weightlifter with 5 percent body fat they are obese because they are heavy, or statistical correlation to claim bacon will give you cancer. Population statistics applied to individuals are really limited.
What is a "typical" vertebrate species? In a diverse ecosystem almost all species will be atypical.
Lawyers know exactly what they are doing when they redefine "significant" during friendly presidential administrations. With allies in power, endangered rulings are made when the science shows the actual risk would need to be 600 percent of what it is,
The public has no idea how broad the definition of endangered is
Due to its name, Americans assume "endangered" means at risk of extinction and the public's belief about risk is far more sensible than what we have gotten from hand-picked scientists that some administrations have used. The public's perception of endangered closely matches the neutral biology community. But those are often not the scientists government chooses to use.
Government instead uses scientists who match the beliefs of career employees, and those scientists may even be stating risk based on what their friends will think rather than what the evidence shows. Whatever the reason, they say the consensus is off by 600 percent and they are right. And they are the ones chosen to shape government policy far too often.
Sounding the alarm by using averages - the opposite of science
The average man has less than two testicles. That reads strange but because some men have had cancers or injuries then all men have fewer than two, on average. The same applies to women, the average woman has less than two breasts. That is not to trivialize testicular or breast cancer, it is to show why science doesn't like to use averages for individuals.
Using averages, pandas would be endangered in Hawaii because, on average, they insist population recovery is only considered legally achieved if there are 2,400 of a species. But pandas are not endangered despite only being 2,000 of them because the panda is not "in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range."
Yet if they were in America, where sue-and-settle agreements during "friendly" administrations have been the norm, they would be.
The 2,400 number average is entirely political. Hawaii has so many plants it now calls endangered that their number to de-list has become the average. Averages are just that ridiculous. In the real world, 75 percent of species have never needed 2,400 to be recovered, some never had that many during recorded history. Only 19 percent of species have needed more than 2,400 to be sustained. Yet that has become a legal number despite it being irrelevant 81 percent of the time.
We've been elevating claims of extinction risk for decades, though actual risk has not changed
Elevation of extinction risk has happened thanks to the greatest environmental litigation group of them all; Natural Resources Defense Council. While Environmental Working Group, Environmental Defense Fund, Center for Science in the Public Interest, etc. have all made fortunes suing and settling, none of them had the policy impact of NRDC, and that is thanks to a case it won in the Supreme Court - Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, which gave "deference" to agencies when interpreting statutes Congress requires them to administer.
So if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is tasked by Congress with creating a habitat for endangered species, like the Mississippi Gopher Frog that Center for Biological Diversity sued to get endangered, and they decide to force a landowner in Louisiana to tear down an existing forest and put up a new one in collaboration with Center for Biological Diversity lawyers, they can do it. That is, if the Supreme Court finds that is valid under "Chevron deference" (they didn't in that case, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the trial lawyers, and we helped with the science.)
This has been routinely exploited by activists for the last 35 years. You are probably not a career government employee unless you like government, and that means you vote for the political party that likes government - and gets a fortune in donations from environmental groups because of that. Over time, you will increase in authority inside government and your allies will benefit as well. Once a friendly White House is in place, Chevron Deference regulations by EPA or Fish and Wildlife or any agency with regulatory power can be used to create legislation - without Congress being involved.
This has been the case with environmental activism. You can map the surge in endangered species listings based on Presidents in power. By the end of the Reagan years, the Endangered Species Act that began in 1966/67 had covered just about everything really endangered, and it averaged a high but not obscene 35 listings per year. Somehow that shot up during the Clinton years, to nearly 65 per year on average, despite all of the really endangered creatures being protected during the previous 25 years. Then the EPA and all of the laws to protect the environment seem to have been working again and new listings declined during the Bush years before the Obama administration had over 50 per year on average again.
To compare apples to apples, the sole term of Bush 41 and the Trump administration to-date are not highlighted, just the four two-term presidents.
Two Democratic administrations since the Chevron deference ruling have accounted for almost 70 percent of all endangered species listings ever - with no scientific justification, just lawsuits filed and settled. Most are settled with government paying the court costs for the lawyers at environmental groups. Many of the suits were prearranged settlements.
It's a way to raise money to pay fat bonuses for their attorneys, and has nothing to do with protecting endangered species. That's not science, and one positive thing the Trump administration can do is put a halt to it and get enough sensible career employees in at government agencies that this madness doesn't start up again during the next Democratic administration.
It is possible to create a scientific consensus of endangered, getting government to use it instead of manipulating science for political favors is a greater challenge.