How a math formula could decide fate of endangered US species

June 19 (Reuters) - The Trump administration is considering a proposal that could effectively let some plants and animals become extinct so cash-strapped agencies can use more of their funds to save others.

At a closed-door meeting last month, Arizona State University ecologist Leah Gerber presented a plan to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials that would use a mathematical formula to direct government money away from endangered and threatened species she calls "over-funded failures" and toward plants and animals that can more easily be saved.

Gavin Shire, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an email to Reuters that the agency is examining the controversial proposal.

"We have worked closely with this group of scientists as they developed this new conservation tool, and while we have not made any determinations yet, are impressed with its potential," Shire said. "We will be exploring further if and how we may best use it to improve the effectiveness of our recovery efforts."

Gerber's May 5 meeting with administration officials and their stated interest in her proposal have not been previously reported. The agency would not comment further.

The proposal comes at a time when the Trump administration is seeking to cut billions from the budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior, which oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Endangered Species Act bars the government from deciding which animals and plants become extinct. But funding one species over another could let some decline or die out.

"I just don't think it's possible to save all species even though I would like to," said Gerber, a self-described Democrat and environmentalist. "That's an uncomfortable thing to say and I don't like it but that's the reality."

Gerber said as many as 200 additional species could be saved by directing funds away from species such as the iconic northern spotted owl - whose numbers have declined despite millions of dollars spent on conservation efforts - and toward those with a better chance of survival.

So-called conservation triage is already being used in New Zealand and the Australian state of New South Wales, but Gerber has developed a specific algorithm for the United States that considers the expense and needs of local species as well as rules laid out by the Endangered Species Act.

Gerber came up with the idea for a U.S. model while Democratic former President Barack Obama was in office, pitching the concept to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials before her algorithm was developed. Given the proposed budget cuts, some proponents say it may have a better chance of adoption under the Trump administration.

To opponents, conservation triage is an impractical and immoral policy that effectively allows bureaucrats to play God.

"If we let species go extinct, there is no bringing them back," said Rebecca Riley, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Increased funding would allow more species to be saved without sacrificing those that are costly to help, she said.

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Endangered species around the world
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Endangered species around the world

Sumatran orang-utan Anita, 23, and her baby Atina, 1, eat a fruit at the unveiling of their new habitat in the Singapore Zoo July 31, 2007. The Sumatran orang utans are categorised as critically endangered with their population standing at approximately 7500 in the wild, according to Singapore zoological officials.

(REUTERS/Nicky Loh)

Newly born Mexican gray wolf cubs, an endangered native species, are seen at its enclosure at the Museo del Desierto in Saltillo, Mexico, July 19, 2016.

(REUTERS/Daniel Becerril)

Baby pygmy hippopotamus 'Lani' walks on a path on May 17, 2014 at the Basel Zoo. Lani is one around 135 pygmy hippopotamuses in the European Endangered Species Program.

(Photo by Fabrice Coffrini via Getty Images)

Pileated gibbonon the tree in real nature at Khaoyai national park, Thailand.

(kajornyot via Getty Images)

Two sand cats born on April 15, 2008 are pictured on April, 25, 2008 at the Amneville's zoo, eastern France. Sand cats are one of the smallest of the wild cats, ranging from Sahara in North Africa to the arid regions of Iran and Pakistan in West and South Asia.

(Photo by Johanna Leguerre via AFP/Getty Images)

This Mountain Pygmy Possum is part of a breeding program at Healesville Sanctuary, 10 March 2007.

(Photo by Andrew De La Rue/The AGE/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Wild Black-footed Ferret, Mustela nigripes, also known as the American polecat or Prairie Dog Hunter, Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan, Canada, one of 35 reintroduced back into Canada in 2009.

(John E Marriott via Getty Images)

Koola, an 18-year-old western lowland gorilla holds her newborn infant in her enclosure at Brookfield Zoo on November 6, 2013 in Brookfield, Illinois.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

WINCHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 01: Amur leopard cubs pictured enjoying their day at Marwell Zoo on September 1, 2016 in Winchester, England. THESE leopard cubs are only nine weeks old but already a media sensation. Two Amur leopard cubs made their first public appearance at Marwell zoo near Winchester this morning. The creatures are amongst the most endangered big cats in the world and these two young boys are part of a program to protect the leopard's future.

(Carolyn Dunford /Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Axolotls are seen in a cage where scientists of the Biology Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) are reproducing them at an experimental canal of Xochimilco in Mexico City February 13, 2014. Scientists at UNAM's Biology Institute have warned the Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) or Mexican salamander, could be at risk of extinction in the wild in five to 10 years as axolotl populations were declining in 2003. But a few canals in the southern Mexico City suburb of Xochimilco, the only waterways where some axolotls may still live, are threatened by pollution caused by the city's continuous expansion and the days of the species in the wild are numbered. The axolotl is now on the endangered species list of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

(REUTERS/Tomas Bravo)

A greater bamboo lemur is seen in this picture released by Conservation International on July 22, 2008. Researchers in Madagascar have found critically endangered greater bamboo lemurs living far from the only other place they were known to exist, raising hopes for the survival of the species, experts said on Tuesday.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Linus Fiely/Conservation International/Handout)

A Dendrobates leucomelas frog is pictured at a terrarium in Caracas November 30, 2015. Venezuelan frogs and toads are in critical danger due to climate change as rising temperatures complicate reproduction and spread a deadly fungus, say scientists, who liken the species to canaries in a coalmine warning of imminent danger. The survival of a group of nearly 20 frog and toad species, which top Venezuela's list of endangered species, may rest on a small group of academics in a Caracas laboratory attempting to recreate the amphibians' natural reproductive conditions. Picture taken on November 30, 2015.

(REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

Seven months old 'Nuan Nuan', a female giant panda cub, plays inside the panda enclosure at the National Zoo in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on April 8, 2016. Nuan Nuan, which means 'friendship' in Chinese, was named in a ceremony where her name was picked from almost 23.000 suggestions coming from the Malaysian public.

(Photo by Alexandra Radu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

A handout photo dated March 21, 2013 shows a short-eared elephant shrew swinging on his new swing in the Wilhelmina in Stuttgart, Germany. Short-eared elephant shrews grow only 22 to 24 cm long; half of the length is made up by the tail. They live in Africa and can reach a speed of up to 20 km/h.

(Photo by Susanne Kern/DPA)

Owabi, a two-week-old monkey cub of the Cercopithecus roloway family, one of the 25 most endangered primate species in the world, is pictured with its mother, Nyaga, on August 2, 2012 at the zoo in Mulhouse, eastern France.

(Photo by Sebstien Bozon via AFP/Getty Images)

An employee poses with an Egyptian tortoise during a photo call for Whipsnade Zoo's annual stocktake in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, north of London, on January 7, 2014.

(Photo by Carl Court via AFP/Getty Images)

This picture taken on November 8, 2016 shows Andatu, a Sumatran rhino, one of the rarest large mammals on earth, at the Rhino Sanctuary at Way Kambas National Park in eastern Sumatra. There are no more than 100 left on the entire planet and Andatu -- a four-year old male -- is one of the last remaining hopes for the future of the species. He is part of a special breeding program at Way Kambas National Park in eastern Sumatra that is trying to save this critically endangered species from disappearing forever.

(GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images)

A zoo keeper holds a baby Philippine crocodile during the annual weigh-in to record animals vital statistics at ZSL London Zoo in London on August 21, 2014.

(Photo by Carl Court via AFP/Getty Images)

The "Indian" or "Java" rhinoceros is listed as a critically endangered of extinction, this rare animal has only one horn which marks the main difference with the African type.

(Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Cuban Greater Funnel-eared Bat. 

(Photo by Alex Borisenko/Biodiversity Institute of Ontario via Flickr)

A female Northern Bald Ibis, also referred to as Waldrapp, warms her nest while two fellows protect her at the zoo in St. Peter-Ording, Germany, on May 5, 2008.

(Photo by Carsten Rehder/DPA) 

A critically endangered small tooth sawfish roams its new home at Oceanworld in Sydney on August 18, 2011. Measuring over 1.5 metres in length, sawfish have adapted to live in both salt and fresh water, while their long saw-like rostrum (nose) has evolved to expertly forage for food under the sandy ocean floor.

(Photo by Torsten Blackwood via AFP/Getty Images)

A giant soft-shell turtle which is considered a sacred symbol of Vietnamese independence is guided into a cage for a health check by handlers at Hoan Kiem lake in the heart of Hanoi. Thousands of onlookers cheered in central Hanoi on April 3, 2011 when rescuers captured for treatment the ailing and ancient giant turtle. Legend has it that the turtle is the guardian of a magical sword once used in the 15th century to drive out Chinese invaders. Concern has mounted in recent months over the health of the animal likely to be over 100 years old and one of the last of a critically endangered species -- it is one of only four Rafetus swinhoei turtles known to exist in the world.

(Photo by Vietnam News Agency via AFP/Getty Images)

Madagascar Pochard

(Photo by darwin_initiative via Flickr)

A Hypsiboas crepitans frog is pictured at a terrarium in Caracas November 30, 2015. Venezuelan frogs and toads are in critical danger due to climate change as rising temperatures complicate reproduction and spread a deadly fungus, say scientists, who liken the species to canaries in a coalmine warning of imminent danger. The survival of a group of nearly 20 frog and toad species, which top Venezuela's list of endangered species, may rest on a small group of academics in a Caracas laboratory attempting to recreate the amphibians' natural reproductive conditions. Picture taken on November 30, 2015.

(REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

Ema Elsa, a nine-year-old Black Rhino, lies next to her newborn calf in their enclosure at Chester Zoo in Chester, northern England October 5, 2012. The female calf which is less than 48 hours old will join an international breeding program for the critically endangered species.

(REUTERS/Phil Noble)

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WINNERS AND LOSERS

In making her case to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Gerber flashed graphs and charts across brightly-colored monitors ringing the meeting room, but said she showed the names of species in code to avoid hot-button issues.

According to research she conducted in 2013, species that might be recommended for an increase in funding include an endangered western reindeer called the woodland caribou, the Indiana bat, the Hawaiian crow and others. She expects the new algorithm to show similar results.

Those that could be left with less government help include the Florida scrub-jay, California's marbled murrelet, Texas' golden-cheeked warbler, the West Coast's white sturgeon fish and Florida's gopher tortoise. Numerous plants could also lose funding.

Then there is the northern spotted owl, which in the 1990s became a symbol of the battle between conservationists and business when the government placed restrictions on the timber industry to protect its old-growth forest habitat.

Today, in struggling former lumber towns of the Pacific Northwest, some residents still blame the spotted owl in part for economic decline. Since 1990, amid habitat protections as well as unrelated economic pressures, the number of sawmills in California has dropped from 117 to 27, according to U.S. government figures.

"The county has never recovered from the Spotted Owl," said Keith Groves, a Trinity County Supervisor who spent his childhood in the Northern California area when it was logging country. Lumber-related work had sustained his father and grandfather, but Groves became a winemaker after the timber industry's collapse.

Locals do not blame the loss entirely on protections for the owl, but the abrupt halt to most logging on federal land connected with the animal's protection shook the region's economy, he said.

Tom Wheeler, a spotted owl expert with the Environmental Protection Information Center, said even with current levels of support the bird could become extinct by 2050.

"We need to do everything within our power to stop that from happening," Wheeler said. "We have a legal obligation under the Endangered Species Act, but I think more forcefully we have a moral obligation to do it."

Despite protected habitat and about $4.5 million, adjusted for inflation, that Gerber calculates has been spent annually between 1989 and 2011 to help the owl recover, federal statistics show its numbers have declined by about 4 percent per year. About 4,800 northern spotted owls are left in North America, according to the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife.

BELOVED CREATURES

Supporters of the triage idea prefer the term "strategic prioritization," saying there is a difference between actively deciding to let a species decline and choosing to spend more on those with better chances of recovery.

One proponent is Hugh Possingham, an Australian scientist and an architect of the policy in that country. Now the chief scientist for U.S. environmental group The Nature Conservancy, Possingham wants to see similar policies adopted in the United States.

"I'm always amazed that this is a contentious issue. I've had people discuss it with me and end up with a fit," he said. "But the mathematics and the economics of doing the best you can with the resources you have - I don't know why that's contentious at all."

The Australian state of New South Wales, which in 2013 adopted a strategic prioritization algorithm, decided to keep funding recovery efforts for some species that the model ranked as low priorities, said James Brazill-Boast, senior project officer with the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage.

For example, he said, the koala would be ranked low, but Australians would never support letting the beloved creatures, listed as vulnerable by law, become extinct.

Gerber said U.S. officials could similarly decide to continue supporting species that her algorithm might reject - or non-profits could step in to help.

"I don't think the agency wants to let things go extinct," Gerber said. "I don't want to let things go extinct. ... But we can actually achieve better outcomes by being strategic."

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