The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a wonderful organization that does a lot of good things. We've been admirers of a lot of their work for many years, but anyone with a familiarity with Statistics 101 would think that there's something weird with an agency that has reviewed 88,000 actions and developments that could potentially be harmful to some of the 1,590 endangered species of plants and animals in the country over the past seven years... And has stopped none of them, with only 2 requiring more significant action on the agency's part.
This seems to be a low batting average by any measure, and it seems unlikely that of the 88,000 reviews, none revealed anything worth blocking to help protect wildlife.
What were the two instances where the FWS felt things crossed the line?
Of 88,000 actions assessed by the FWS between January 2008 and April 2015, just two triggered significant further action. A 2007 plan to drop fire retardant in California was deemed by the FWS to be prohibitively harmful to forest-dwelling endangered species, although this was challenged in court. The FWS also stepped in over a plan to divert water from the San Francisco Bay Delta due to concerns over the impact to threatened fish.
Intervention on wildlife's behalf seem to be going down over time, with a previous study in 1991 showing that out of 73,560 consultations, the FWS acted on 350 of them to get the projects blocked or modified.
These figures certainly show that the old cliché about all kinds of projects being blocked to protect endangered frogs and howls are more myth than reality. Maybe when it happens, it makes the headlines and the anti-conservation crowd talks about it forever afterwards.
So why is the Fish and Wildlife Service acting so rarely? Part of the problem might be that they are understaffed, but it could also be a cultural issue; the organization might have gotten into "don't rock the boat too much" mode at some point. It would be nice to see its funding go up and some political capital being spent on strengthening its mandate.
This is all speculation, of course. We're not privy to what is going on inside the FWS, and maybe there are other reasons for the low number of actions. But whatever went on in the past, we hope that going forward, threatened species will be able to count on the Service.