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An animal’s conservation status

There are many different terms thrown around for the conservation status of different species such as endangered, threatened or vulnerable, but what do these labels really mean? The answer depends on what institution’s conservation terms are being referenced.

In the United States, the conservation of plants and animals is governed by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which is overseen and implemented by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Plants and animals are classified as either endangered or threatened based on “the best scientific and commercial data available” and a review process that often includes public hearings and public comment opportunities.

The definitions for endangered and threatened species are straight forward and listed in the Endangered Species Act:
  • Endangered species means any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.
  • Threatened species means any species which is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future through all or a significant portion of its range.
Any references to U.S. government agencies, laws or state conservation plans using the terms endangered or threatened are working with the above definitions. However, many non-profits and wildlife organizations use the conservation terms outlined by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization.

Founded in 1948, the IUCN maintains the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which is updated and maintained by staff working with volunteer experts across the globe. Since the Red List was first launched in 1994, the IUCN has assessed more than 65,000 species of plants and animals with the goal of reevaluating the status of each species every five years.

The categories used by the IUCN to define each species’ conservation status follow the same intent as the Endangered Species Act, but are more detailed:
  • Extinct - when there is no reasonable doubt that the last individual has died.
  • Extinct in the Wild - when a species is known only to survive in cultivation, in captivity or as a naturalized population well outside the past range.
  • Threatened is divided up into three subcategories:
    1. Critically Endangered - a species facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.
    2. Endangered - a species facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild. 
    3. Vulnerable - a species facing a high risk of extinction in the wild.
  • Near Threatened - a species is close to qualifying for or is likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future.
  • Least Concern - species that are widespread and abundant are included in this category.
Several Southern California animals fall within specific IUCN categories. The giant sea bass is considered to be critically endangered and faces an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. An animal that used to be a common sight in Southern California, the Southern sea otter is endangered and lives in only small sections of its former range. And the Pacific seahorse is vulnerable and at high risk of extinction because large sections of its preferred eel grass habitat are gone.

Regardless of whether the IUCN or the Endangered Species Act definitions are being used, classifying species as endangered or threatened raises awareness of an animal or plant’s plight and helps pave the way for recovery. The Pacific gray whale is one great success story.

Hunted to near extinction, the International Whaling Commission banned the whaling of gray whales in 1946, but some whaling continued and their recovery was slow. Then in 1973 gray whales received extra protection under the Endangered Species Act. Steadily, the plight of gray whales improved and in 1994 they were removed from the Endangered Species Act List. Now there are about 22,000 gray whales migrating past California’s coast each year supporting a bustling whale watching industry. (Gray whales are still protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and many animals also receive protection under state laws.)

Post Date: Tuesday, January 22, 2013

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