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For Immediate Release, August 12, 2010

Contacts:  Kierán Suckling, Center for Biological Diversity, (520) 275-5960
Dr. Tony Povilitis, Life Net Nature, (406) 600-4803

Study: 60% of Species Recovery Plans Identify Global Warming as Extinction Threat
But Plans Remain Inconsistent, Hindered by Lack of Federal Guidance

TUCSON, Ariz.— A scientific review of federal endangered species recovery plans finds that scientists are increasingly identifying global warming as an extinction threat but government agencies have yet to respond with any national strategy. The lack of recovery plan guidance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has led to inconsistent efforts to save species that scientists say are most threatened by global warming.

The recently published study was co-authored by Dr. Tony Povilitis, president of Life Net Nature, and Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. It appeared in the peer-reviewed science journal Conservation Biology. The study examined all 1,209 federal endangered species recovery plans issued between 1975 and 2008 to determine how well they address the threat of climate change.

“Global warming is the greatest overarching threat to endangered species, but until very recently, it was rarely addressed in federal recovery plans,” Povilitis said. “Scientists are rapidly closing the gap, but are sorely lacking in guidance from the federal government.”

The study concludes that urgent action is needed before it’s too late for recovery efforts to be successful. “Levels of atmospheric heat-trapping gases must be reduced soon to avoid substantially higher risk of species extinction,” the authors wrote.

The review found that fewer than 5 percent of recovery plans written prior to 2005 mentioned global warming. Since then (from 2005 to 2008), the threat has been included in 60 percent of recovery plans.

“Scientific teams have moved swiftly to incorporate global warming into these recovery plans, but good science isn’t enough. We need good policy,” said Suckling. “Without it, scientific teams are forced to create their own policies on the fly, species by species, every time they write a recovery plan.”


The study, “Addressing Climate Change Threats to Endangered Species in U.S. Recovery Plans,” made the following findings:

  • No recovery plan issued between 1975 and 1989 addressed global warming.
  • The first to do so was the 1990 West Virginia northern flying squirrel plan.
  • Fewer than 5 percent of plans completed per year addressed global warming between 1993 and 2000, but this number increased to 18 percent between 2001 and 2004, and to 59 percent between 2005 and 2008 (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. Percent of recovery plans addressing climate change

Figure 1

Though progress has been rapid in the past five years, the historic failure to address global warming means that only 10 percent of all recovery plans (=124) address global warming.

Few plans discuss the urgency of addressing climate change in stronger terms than the 2006 plan to recover 21 taxa of forest birds in Hawaii.

“Work to stop global climate change” is a priority action item in the plan. It continues: “Global warming and local climate change are a serious threat to listed species in Hawaii primarily because of the potential for movement of disease carrying mosquitoes into higher elevation avian refugia currently free of mosquito breeding sites. This work will require cooperation by appropriate agencies and entities to develop agreements and technologies needed to slow greenhouse gas emissions, a significant factor contributing to global climate change.”

Scientists have clearly identified the threat of climate change in other species’ recovery plans:

  • “Climate change poses a high threat to the conservation and recovery” of Atlantic salmon in the Gulf of Maine, the salmon’s plan says. “Any prolonged or significant warming of Maine’s climate would probably make the survival of Atlantic salmon in Maine more difficult.”
  • The plan for Hawaiian monk seals says, “While some habitat loss . . .  has already been observed, sea level rise over the longer term may threaten a large portion of the resting and pupping habitat.”
  • For the Quino checkerspot butterfly, the plan says, “Evidence of local climate change and a corresponding change in the Quino checkerspot butterfly's range-wide distribution supports the conclusion that climate change is a substantial threat to the species’ survival in the foreseeable future.” It adds that climate shifts “are likely to affect not only all aspects of the Quino checkerspot butterfly recovery strategy in the foreseeable future, but also the future of every other native species in Southern California.”
  • The plan for the desert tortoise says, “There is now sufficient evidence that recent climatic changes have affected a broad range of organisms with diverse geographical distributions.” Warming temperatures and changing precipitation patterns could shift distribution of the tortoise, “thereby reducing the viability of lands currently identified as ‘refuges’ or critical habitat for the species.”

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