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November 20, 2023

33 Minutes

Guests: Sarina Jepsen

Tags: endangered species, staff guests,

The word “endangered” is widely used when talking about rare animals in news reports, conservation campaigns, TV documentaries, and more. Sometimes being endangered is seen as a benefit, other times as a bad thing — but what does it mean? As with so many things, what lies behind the word “endangered” is more complicated than what meets the eye, and the word is not always used consistently, which can lead to confusion. Are honey bees endangered? No, there are millions of hives. Is the rusty patched bumble bee endangered? Yes, it is protected under the Endangered Species Act. What about the monarch butterfly? Probably, but not officially — and if they are protected, they may be classified as “threatened” — and is that at the federal or state level (or maybe internationally)? Are you confused yet? 

Guest Information

Sarina is the director of the endangered species program at the Xerces Society. Sarina joined Xerces in 2006, and has since worked on the conservation of diverse at-risk (there’s another term to explain!) invertebrate species, including bees, butterflies, tiger beetles, fireflies, and freshwater mussels. 

Show Notes & Links

In this episode, we define terms like endangered species, threatened, at risk, and imperiled. We talk about the process for a species to become endangered including how to access a species population. There are complexities to listing a species as endangered. We cover the impact of the Endangered Species Act and how you can help imperiled species.

Transcript

Rachel: Welcome to Bug Banter with the Xerces society where we explore the world of invertebrates and how to help these extraordinary animals.

Matthew: Hi, I'm Matthew Shepherd from Portland, Oregon. 

Rachel: And I'm Rachel Dunham in Missoula Montana. 

Matthew: The word “endangered” is widely used when talking about rare animals in news reports, conservation campaigns, TV documentaries, and more. Sometimes being endangered is seen as a benefit, other times as a bad thing — but what does it mean? 

Matthew: As with so many things, what lies behind the word “endangered” is more complicated than what meets the eye, and the word is not always used correctly, which can lead to confusion. 

Matthew: Are honey bees endangered? No, there are millions of hives. Is the rusty patched bumble bee endangered? Yes, it is protected under the Endangered Species Act. What about the monarch butterfly? Probably, but not officially — and if they are protected, they may be classified as “threatened” — and is that at the federal or state level (or maybe internationally)?

Matthew: Are you confused yet? Today, to talk about endangered species and help untangle this topic, we are joined by Sarina Jepsen, the director of the endangered species program at the Xerces Society. Sarina joined Xerces in 2006, since when she has worked on the conservation of diverse at-risk (there’s another term to explain!) invertebrate species, including bees, butterflies, tiger beetles, fireflies, and freshwater mussels

Matthew: Welcome, Sarina! We are so excited to have you with us.

Sarina: Thanks for having me.

Rachel: Alright, well let's start with the basics. There are a few ways in which an animal can be listed or deemed endangered. There is the red list managed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, also known as the IUCN, which was established in 1964. The United States established the Endangered Species Act of 1973. And on top of that, a lot of states have their own versions of an endangered species law.

Rachel: Can you first briefly tell us what the differences are between these acts and who manages them? 

Sarina: Certainly. I'll start with the IUCN Red List. So, the IUCN International Union for the Conservation of Nature is a global organization dedicated to conservation and they've established a red list which essentially has a set of uniform criteria that people can use to evaluate the conservation status and extinction risk of species.

Sarina: So many different conservationists from different organizations or universities can use the IUCN criteria to rank a species as endangered, or vulnerable, or handful of other categories and submit that to the IUCN red list. If a species is listed, say, as endangered on the IUCN red list, it doesn't directly affect what can or can't be done in that species’s habitat in the US. It's more of a way of raising the profile of a species in need of conservation attention without setting forth any sort of legal requirements.

Sarina: In contrast, the federal Endangered Species Act in the US is among the most significant environmental laws in US history. Once a species is listed under the US ESA as endangered or threatened, certain activities may become illegal if they result in what's defined as take, which is harassing, harming, or killing, hunting, a species, or trying to do that. So, the Endangered Species Act has been really effective at preventing species from going extinct. 

Sarina: It's also been effective at engaging many different people and organizations in species recovery and recovery planning. Certainly, more resources are needed for this area and recovery takes a long time, but this law provides a really important emergency room for species that are really on the brink of extinction.

Sarina: And then we have state endangered species acts and that's a whole other topic. Those are managed typically by a state wildlife agency. Not all states have an Endangered Species Act. Those that don't necessarily all allow for insects to be included as animals eligible to be protected under the state endangered species act. And even fewer of the states that have these endangered species laws are actually meaningful. 

Sarina: So to say that again, I would say there are very few states where the level of protection afforded to a species listed under a state endangered species act is substantial. California, I think, is one exception to that, in that they do have a pretty strong Endangered Species Act that prohibits the taking of endangered species.

Rachel: Why are there these different lists and do they interact or influence each other? 

Sarina: Great question. To some extent, yes, and there are many more lists than even the ones you just mentioned. A really important listing process in every state: we have State Natural Heritage programs and they work within the NatureServe network to maintain a list of at-risk species and those lists are relevant to state agencies.

Sarina: For example, when the state wildlife agency is developing their species of greatest conservation need as part of a state wildlife action planning effort I'd say conservationists like conservation biologists at the Xerces Society look to all of these lists. To the State Heritage program lists, and the IUCN lists. As well as of course the federal Endangered Species Act lists.

Sarina: And we also often do the work of even evaluating species extinction risks using these various frameworks. So, we've undertaken status assessments of fireflies, bumblebees, and freshwater mussels, and now we're embarking on a project to understand the conservation status and extinction risk of wild bees in the US.

Rachel: When you talk about assessing a species, what is that? What does that look like?

Sarina: Yeah, so from a conservation biologist at the Xerces Society who's done it, we will use the criteria that the IUCN has and the criteria that NatureServe has put forth to evaluate population status, threats, the area in which a species occurs. For insect species and other types of invertebrates, we often lack some of the really essential information that's needed to understand the trends in a species' population over time.

Sarina: But we use the best information available. So, it's like a scientific literature review project and a process of gathering different sources of information from multiple places and getting a picture of whether the species is endangered, vulnerable, or more likely stable.

Rachel: So that leads perfectly to something else I was going to ask. You have mentioned, you know, talking about threatened versus endangered, vulnerable, at risk, rare species. We sort of hear all of these words, sometimes being used interchangeably, but they are quite different. Can you describe or explain what the difference is between those terms? 

Sarina: Sure. I think the terms endangered and threatened are two terms that have really specific legal definitions under the Endangered Species Act. So endangered species means any species that is in danger of extinction throughout all of its range or a significant portion of its range with the exception of insects that are determined to be pest species. 

Sarina: Then threatened species is defined as a species that's likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. And then other terms like imperiled or at risk are more general terms that are used to describe an animal whose populations may be declining or face some level of extinction risk, but it isn't formally categorized as an endangered or threatened species under US law. 

Sarina: Just to confuse matters further, one of the threat categories on the IUCN red list is endangered. And so when there were a lot of media stories about the IUCN listing monarchs as endangered, I think a lot of people thought, oh great, monarchs are now legally protected in the US when they read the stories about that, which is not the case at all. It's a confusion of terms.

Matthew: Protection for the rusty patched bumblebee took a decade or more. And I know you were involved with that for probably the entire duration of that effort. Is that kind of length or period of time typical for trying to get protection? I mean, how might you go about gaining protection for an insect under either? I think of the US endangered species that, but I also know and you mentioned the California ESA, which also can be a fairly lengthy process.

Sarina: Yeah, it can take quite a while for an animal to receive Endangered Species Act protection. When there's sufficient information on the status, the conservation status of a species, and for insects and other invertebrates, there often is not sufficient information. But when there is, the first step is to file a petition and for the case of insects, that would be with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Matthew: When you say petition, you don't mean as a long list of people signing something do you?

Sarina: No, I mean like a scientific research paper, all of the best available information on the species. And anyone can do this. Anyone can submit a petition. It has to contain enough information on population status, threats, and any evidence of decline for the agency in charge and for insects that would be the Fish and Wildlife Service. To determine that the species may warrant protection. And if they do, that's called a positive ninety-day finding. 

Sarina: This initial finding, is that the first step is supposed to occur within 90 days but it often takes longer than 90 days to complete. Once that happens, the agency, typically the Fish and Wildlife Service in our case would undergo a CDC status assessment and that's a really in-depth review evaluating a variety of factors about how this is likely to fare across its range, how resilient it is, how redundant its populations are, things like that.

Sarina: And they often consult with a body of experts to do this assessment, utilize the best available science, and engage in modeling to predict how well a species will fare in the future under different scenarios. And then that species status assessment will inform the ultimate decision to list a species or not to list a species as threatened or endangered under the ESA.

Sarina: And this part of the process, the status assessment. And that next finding is supposed to take one year. But we're in the midst of a mass extinction and the workload on the agencies tasked with evaluating species extinction risk is enormous. So, they now prioritize species, 12-month findings, and listing decisions, based upon many things, including how dire their situation is and they publish that plan of when decisions are slated to come out.

Sarina: The 12-month findings can take several years and then even if the Fish and Wildlife Service determines that a species warrants listing the actual listing can take even a few more years as we just saw with the decision with monarchs that was made in December, 2020. They determined that monarch butterflies are warranted for protection as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, but that decision to actually list them was precluded by other higher-priority species listings that needed to happen first. And so that decision was made almost 3 years ago and the listing decision still hasn't come out.

Matthew: Yeah, because I know that with the monarch in particular, this is one of the ones that there's been so much media around. I mean, you've already mentioned a couple of times that there's sometimes information lacking, you know, we don't always have status information for insects.

Matthew: Do you think that insects are more difficult to list than other species? I recently saw your interview on the Daily Show with Michael Costa, which I just thought was fabulous to see because of the debate in California around trying to protect bumblebees where the legal structure allows bumblebees to be protected, but only if they're considered to be fish. 

Matthew: This just seems kind of silly and, if insects are harder, do you have any sense of why this might be and, are there any extra complications with trying to list an invertebrate?

Sarina: Yeah, I think that invertebrates and insects especially are much more difficult to protect than other species. I think some of our laws and our statutes are sort of rooted in older ideas that insects are pests and don't necessarily recognize, but I think is something that many people appreciate, which is that the vast majority of insects are necessary to maintain and support our ecosystems and colonize our crops and decomposition and pest control. All of those services.

Sarina: So, I think that the public appreciates that, but I think that many of our statutes don't necessarily yet recognize that and that will change. So yeah, this California example is really entertaining. Just last year, I mean, this took many years to get to a decision as well. This went all the way up to the California Supreme Court and they let stand a lower court decision that determined that these and other invertebrates could be eligible for California Endangered Species Act protection under the state's definition of fish.

Sarina: Of course, we all know these are not fish but California's state legislature decades ago created this term of art defining fish in a particular way to include invertebrates. And since we know that these are unquestionably a type of invertebrate, according to California state law, they fall under the legislature's definition of fish and therefore, can be protected under their State Endangered Species Act if they, you know, meet the other criteria of being in danger of extinction.

Sarina: So, this process began with a petition that conservation biologists at Xerces wrote asking for California Endangered Species protection for 4 species of really imperiled bumblebees. We submitted this with our conservation partners to the California Fish and Game Commission in 2018. Then the following year they were granted candidate status by the Fish and Game Commission and in response to that petition and to the decision to make them candidates pesticide companies and some larger-scale agricultural groups sued the state of California, the Fish and Game Commission, and the Department of Wildlife. So, we were one of the interveners in that lawsuit along with our conservation partners.

Sarina: Yeah quite interesting how it all came together but I think this case really came down to how legislatures, how lawmakers define words. What that means for actual protection on the ground of an endangered pollinator or some other animal is actually indicative of a much larger issue. Several state legislatures at least 8 mostly in the western US actually define wildlife in a way that specifically excludes insects and many other types of invertebrates making it nearly impossible for State wildlife agencies that are tasked with say recovering salmon in Oregon, for example, can't really work on.

Sarina: So many animals like monarch butterflies, western bumblebees, or other in peril pollinators that aren't yet ESA listed. The issue has come up quite a bit and I think there's a lot of momentum building to change this.

Matthew: Yeah, it seems funny that a state can't protect insects because so many states have a symbolic insect. The Oregon butterfly, the Oregon Swallowtail is the official state butterfly, but I guess the state can't do anything to protect him.

Rachel: And just the dependence that other wildlife have on invertebrates and insects like fish that need insects to survive and yet we can't protect what they need seems very interesting. So, it's good to hear there is at least hope that that's changing even if it's a very long hard effort. 

Rachel: There's sort of this mix of emotions when animals are listed as endangered. Sort of the sadness that it has to be endangered and that it's imperiled and at risk of extinction, but then also this kind of sense of relief of oh, something is being done to help these animals. 

Rachel: Can you tell us more about how the listing of a species actually helps their population? What does this actually mean on the ground for these animals and are there any stories of hope that you have? Like yeah, this has worked well.

Sarina: Well, there are a number of things that happen once a species gets listed. In addition to just the profile of the species being raised and engaging a lot of different entities in focusing conservation efforts on that species. But one important thing is that a recovery plan is developed and that is often really helpful in guiding species conservation efforts and kind of bringing multiple disparate efforts together to all focus on some recovery targets.

Sarina: Also, often when a species is listed critical habitat will be designated. So specific areas are really important for supporting a species. One of the most important aspects of the Endangered Species Act listing is this take prohibition that I mentioned earlier. Making certain activities illegal if they result in take or requiring permits for activities like if there's accidental or incidental take, occurring within the range of an ESA listed species, an agency can apply for an incidental take permit and they may be required to mitigate for that loss by improving the species habitat elsewhere or something like that. 

Sarina: That's a pretty important part of the Endangered Species Act. Also, federal agencies are required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service. In the case of insects, their activities are likely to affect an enlisted species in a negative way and they often work with the agency to come up with a plan to avoid, running into the species. They’re building a new road or, doing some other projects or maybe even doing some monitoring or something like that. They're required to consult whenever federal dollars are involved. 

Sarina: And then I think just in general there tends to be more funding and resources available to aid in species recovery once they're ESA listed. Rachel, you were asking about stories of hope. 

Rachel: Yeah, if there are any examples of animals that have recovered because of being listed as an endangered species.

Sarina: Yeah, I think that the Fender's Blue Butterfly is a really nice example of that. It was just this year it was downlisted from an endangered species to a threatened species. So, it's still listed under the Endangered Species Act, but this is a species that has had decades of collaborative conservation work and now its populations are estimated to be much larger than they were at the time the species was listed.

Sarina: Some of that is due to more study and finding new populations of the species, but there has just been an incredible effort by many different entities, public and private to conserve this animal and so I think it's on the road to recovery. 

Matthew: Yeah, and the Fender’s Blue is here in Oregon, isn't it? In the Willamette Valley and that's one of the grassland prairie butterflies that you know, its prairie disappeared under the plow and development, and everything else. So, it's really great to know that that butterfly is beginning to rebound. We've got more of it around. 

Rachel: So, with the Fender's Blue Butterfly, you mentioned that they were downlisted. If a species makes a comeback and has a healthy population and a healthy habitat, do they come off the endangered species list? 

Sarina: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's the goal. And it does happen. We just saw this with the bald eagle, several years ago. Yes, so that is the goal for species to come off the endangered species list once they meet and sustain their recovery goals.

Sarina: And that's another benefit of Endangered Species Act listing is that you have an agency with expertise in species populations monitoring and reviewing species statuses over time so that once they do begin to recover they can come off the list. 

Matthew: Obviously, that's everybody's hope is that they're no longer endangered or threatened, and be finally delisted. We were talking about how we go about trying to get things listed and protected, and said that anybody can, write a petition for example.

Matthew: Are there things that you know, people could do, I mean, I'll listen to any suggestions and actions that they could do and all that like support endangered or threatened invertebrates and help them get delisted or downlisted.

Sarina: I think the actions I would recommend kind of depend on where you live and what the species are, but there are certainly some imperiled and listed species that people interact with on a regular basis like the rusty patched bumblebee for example occurs in people's backyards in the upper Midwest. 

Sarina: So, it's really kind of common in urban areas. Other species or even the Western Bumblebee in certain areas occur around where people live and so, in those places, some of the direct habitat work could be really important. Planting a pollinator garden, ensuring that you're not using pesticides in your garden, or becoming active more at a local level to look at what is happening on a citywide level, for example, those could really help specific, imperiled, or listed endangered or threatened species.

Sarina: But also engaging in like a monitoring project can be really useful. I think I've mentioned a couple of times how little information we have even for some of our most well-studied invertebrates. Community science monitoring can be a really effective way to address those information gaps and there are many monitoring programs. Xerces runs a bumblebee atlas; we do Western Monarch monitoring and have a count every winter that people can engage in as well.

Sarina: We have a Firefly Atlas to start to get more information on some of the declining Firefly species as well as some of the ones that are just data deficient. We don't know enough about them and that's why we have some focal areas, but that's also a nationwide project. So, anyone in the US can contribute data to the Firefly Atlas as well. 

Matthew: I'm just blown away by the idea of having an endangered animal in my garden. That's so cool. I guess if you have the right location you might get an eagle or something sitting in a tree in your yard if you had a riverside or a lake or whatever but the idea that, for, say the rusty patched bumblebee to be in your own garden. That's so cool that you can have such a direct connection and such a direct opportunity to benefit an endangered species and help it recover.

Sarina: You make a really good point Matthew and I think that's something that's really unique about insect conservation is that there are a lot of actions that people can take, especially with some of our broadly distributed insects that we have to the point that they're meeting the criteria of an endangered species.

Sarina: And monarchs would be a great example. Meeting the criteria of a threatened species potentially to be listed in the very near future. There are a lot of things people can do to help monarchs. In and around where they live. And there are several other species too. The large marble butterfly is another example that occurs across the Western US.

Sarina: It's probably worse off than monarch butterflies. According to some new research, it's just recently been petitioned by Xerces Society for Endangered Species Act protection. And there are several things that people can do. In terms of putting in specific host plants for the species in their pollinator gardens. Several things people can do in a lot of different areas because its distribution is so widespread.

Rachel: I think one thing I just want to confirm is when people are going out and they're using the Bumblebee Watch app or being a part of the Atlas Program or being part of the new Firefly Atlas program, is that data actually being used to help us assess these species to get them listed? 

Sarina: Yes. Yes, absolutely. In certain cases, the data will be used for an assessment for listing, but the data is used in a wide variety of different ways. So, through our Bee projects, the data collected on the Western Bumblebee was used in the Fish and Wildlife Services, species status assessment process, which is still ongoing for the Western Bumblebee. 

Sarina: The Firefly Atlas data certainly is used to protect species in need of protection and even to understand which species may need protection. Also, I think a lot of the information collected can be used in recovery planning as well as understanding how and where to manage habitat for species.

Sarina: So, one project that was just recently completed in the Endangered Species program was a conservation strategy for bumblebees in the state of Washington and that strategy came directly from information collected by Bumblebee Atlas Community Science Volunteers in Washington.

Sarina: So, several years of targeted surveys that people were doing all out on the landscape collecting information about what bumblebees occurred in all different parts of the state and what plants they were using and some other elements of their habitat went directly into developing a statewide planning document to conserve the most imperiled bumblebees in the state. We hope to repeat that in other states. With all of the information collected through these atlases. 

Rachel: That's great. I just think it's important for people to know that it's truly having such a huge impact. Community scientists are so important to help us save these species and just understand them. They're small, they're hard to count.

Rachel: And then I do have a follow-up question because I think a lot of our listeners have probably heard of iNaturalist or use iNaturalist. Is any of that data used? 

Sarina: Yeah, iNaturalist I think is being used more and more, in species assessments and information about where species occur. Yeah, it's absolutely important and utilized. 

Rachel: Great. So, to end, I'm going to ask you my favorite question about what inspired you to get into this line of work of saving these at-risk species.

Sarina: Yeah, I guess I've always been fascinated by insects and just kind of the micro worlds around us. But it did take me a little while to settle on my career path as an undergraduate. I studied art, but I engaged in conservation-related activism as more of a hobby on the side and it wasn't until after I finished college that I began taking more classes in biology, leading me to a master's program in entomology and while I was in grad school I began volunteering for Xerces.

Sarina: So, I got a job here in 2006 and I started working on aquatic species and wetlands here and then working with our executive director Scott Black. He and I decided to start an endangered species program shortly after that. 

Rachel: That's amazing. Yeah, I've used some of your artwork actually in our outreach. You're really talented. 

Rachel: Well, thank you so much, Sarina, for your time and for answering these really complicated questions. And to help us understand what an endangered species is and what that means and what that looks like on the ground.

Rachel: So, thank you for all the work that you're doing at Xerces and for your team and the amazing effort you all have put forth to help save these incredible animals and we hope to have you back again soon and we just want to thank all our listeners for joining us and we hope you have a great day.

Matthew: Bug Banter is brought to you by the Xerces Society, a donor-supported non-profit that works to protect insects and other invertebrates – the life that sustains us.

Matthew: If you’re already a donor, thank you so much. If you want to support our work go to Xerces.org/donate. For information about this podcast and show notes go to Xerces.org/bugbanter.