The Hawaiian monk seal is a loveable creature. The 600-pound warm-water mammal spends most of its time flopping in the shore break, roughhousing with mates, and lazing about in the sun. Blogs like MonkSealMania are repositories of photos of the endangered animals sleeping in improbable positions. The creature’s native Hawaiian name translates, endearingly, to “dog that runs in rough water.”
All this makes the math even harder to swallow: we should let the Hawaiian monk seal go extinct.
“There’s just no way to save them,” says Leah Gerber, a professor at Arizona State University. Gerber’s neither heartless nor immune to the seal’s charms; she’s an ecologist and marine biologist who’s dedicated her career to protecting wildlife. She writes impassioned op-eds begging officials not to weaken the Endangered Species Act and calling for more funding. But her work's much broader than just the monk seal. Gerber is one of the country’s leading proponents of what’s called species triage, a practice where conservationists use data and models to figure out how to spend our limited endangered species dollars as efficiently and effectively as possible. The practice has been used by governments in Australia and New Zealand, but it’s never made it to the United States. The goal is to save as many species as possible—even if it means calling it quits for creatures like the monk seal. “There’s a level of discomfort with this, but we have to face hard choices,” she says.
Gerber would never publicly prescribe extinction for any animal, but the Hawaiian monk seal is a prime example of how poorly we manage our endangered species spending, she says. Each year, the federal government spends about $5 million to protect the 1,400 seals left on earth. As significant as that sum sounds, it’s nowhere near enough to give them a real shot at survival. The seal’s habitat is spread across the 1,000-mile arc of the outer Hawaiian Islands; it is laborious and expensive to track them all, relocate juveniles to safe areas, and ensure dangerous garbage and debris stays out. To remove the seal from federally-funded life support would cost roughly $380 million and take over 50 years, researchers estimated in 2007.
Will the monk seal ever get that kind of funding? Not likely, if recent cuts to the seal program are any indication. And the monk seal is just one of thousands of endangered species whose rehabilitation we underfund. Protecting the 16,000 or so critically endangered species on Earth today would cost $76 billion, annually—about 52 times what the U.S. spends each year.
"There’s a level of discomfort with this, but we have to face hard choices."
The Sisyphean job that conservationists are tasked with—to try to save every endangered species on Earth, without anything near adequate resources—has led Gerber and other proponents of species triage to raise questions that would have been heretical in the field a generation ago. Like: Could the money we spend on the monk seal be better spent on other endangered species? And, if so, should we let the monk seal—or the giant panda or the snow leopard or the California condor—go extinct?
“We’re in the Anthropocene—the sixth mass extinction,” Gerber says. “The approach we’re taking right now is burying or heads in the sand and saying we're not going to choose, we’re going to muddle through and see what things look like when we come up for air. And I’m saying ‘No, no, let’s shine a light on this because extinction is forever.’”
Controversial as species triage might be, Gerber may just get her wish. For the last two years, she’s has been working closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help develop a “prioritization” plan that would create “transparent approaches to decision-making about the best allocation of funds” for the recovery of endangered species. The plan, which will be reviewed by the service this fall, aims to help FWS spend its dollars more efficiently.
The decision will likely be divisive. A large portion of conservationists—up to 40 percent, according to a 2011 Conservation Biology survey—remain uncomfortable with establishing triage guidelines. And for some, the concept is anathema. “Either fund it all properly or accept that you’re the one who is playing God and driving something extinct by not helping,” says David Lindenmayer, a professor of ecology at Australian National University, where triage has been implemented by state governments. “You’re going to watch entire communities go extinct. Of the triaging bureaucrats in charge of selecting winners and losers, Lindenmayer says, “You can tell your God that’s what you did.”
Hugh Possingham is used to responses like that. “People’s first reaction is they’re appalled. Some people say, ‘How can you “prioritize” any species?’” says Possingham, the Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist. Possingham is one of the fathers of species triage (or, less controversially, “prioritizing”) and worked closely with researchers to help the governments of New Zealand and Australia implement the practice. In conservation circles, Possingham says it’s easy to accuse pro-triage folks of condemning species to extinction—“I’m not going to go and shoot them,” he says—but the trained mathematician says we’re already picking favorites by underfunding the majority of endangered species programs.
It turns out our endangered species dollars aren’t divvied up evenly or even rationally—plenty of species don’t get anywhere near what they need to recover. Gerber’s research has shown that we spend endangered species dollars erratically: some species are dramatically overfunded—the wood stork and the bull trout, for example, each get more than ten times what they need—while the vast majority (like the ocelot, the monk seal, and the desert bighorn sheep) get far less. If we just redistributed the surplus spending on 50 "costly yet futile" species recovery efforts, from the Florida scrub jay to the razorback sucker, she found, we could adequately fund recovery efforts for 182 more plants and animals.
This kind of work has borne fruit in the wild, too. In New Zealand, which took up triage with gusto a few years ago, the Department of Conservation realized it could save 50 percent more species just by reallocating the current budget on species more likely to make a comeback. This was good news for many native plants, bad luck for the rockhopper penguin.
This hard-nosed, economically minded approach, Possingham says, appeals especially to conservative governments focused on keeping spending in check. “It’s cost effectiveness. I’ve sold this as ‘bang for your buck’ to very right wing politicians,” Possingham says. “For the first time, we have people able to say ‘Here’s what we did with the money you gave us, and here’s what you can buy with more money.’”
But that’s just what some prominent anti-triage conservationists are worried about. “Fish and Wildlife under the current administration is going to love triage,” says Stuart Pimm, an eminent ecologist at Duke University. “It means you don’t have to do things.”
Protecting the 16,000 or so critically endangered species on earth today would cost $76 billion, annually—about 52 times what the U.S. spends each year.
Pimm is a leading voice pushing back against triage. If we accepted triage years ago, conservationists would never have learned valuable lessons about endangered species management, Pimm says, citing the field's Herculean (and successful) effort to bring the California condor back from the brink. “Triage doesn’t advance the field. It basically says we don’t have to try any difficult tasks,” he says. “It says, Let’s write off the things that are inconvenient or difficult by saying we just don’t have the capacity to do it.”
Fish and Wildlife officials won’t comment on the state of the prioritization plan, but acknowledged in a statement that the agency is working with Gerber on a framework. “With limited Endangered Species Act funds available, it is incumbent on us to make smart choices for the benefit of our nation’s most imperiled species. To that end, we value all information that can help us in developing a more strategic approach to allocating these limited resources to the best effect.”
In the meantime, out in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Charles Littnan doesn’t feel like his work is in vain. Littnan is the head scientist on NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program. Fish and Wildlife’s decision on species triage won’t financially impact his work—FWS is part of the Department of Interior; NOAA falls under Commerce—but he’s familiar with the argument. He’s not the budget guy or a politician, he says, he’s the guy on the beach trying to figure out how to best help seals. And from where he’s standing, things aren't looking too bad for the monk seal. NOAA has inked meaningful deals with private environmental groups to help cover budgetary shortfalls and, excitingly, seal numbers are actually increasing. “Contrary to what Dr. Gerber has said, we just announced that, for the first time in five decades, the population is relatively stable. It’s been showing signs of growth for the last three years,” Littnan says.
Littnan may be biased, but he thinks we humans have an obligation to the monk seal. They’ve been on this earth for 13 million years, he says, and their population didn’t start nose-diving till we messed up their habitat. If the monk seal disappears, we have no idea what it could do the ecosystem at large. “Nature, in many ways, is a symphony. Every creature plays a role in making that music. If you start to eliminate things, things fall apart. What is a beautiful symphony turns to clanging noise and dysfunction.”