At the end of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Ark of the Covenant is trundled off into a vault of forgotten wonders, there to languish in bureaucratic obscurity. The U.S. Endangered Species Program has often worked the same way -- and finally, after decades of waiting, the vault is about to be opened.
Thanks to a landmark settlement between conservation groups and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, decisions will be made on hundreds of species nominated for protection since the 1980s. Some have been designated as "warranted but precluded," a technical way of saying they fully deserve to be considered for threatened or endangered protection, but it's just not a federal priority. Others haven't even received that consideration.
"More than half of the candidate species currently on the list have been candidates for two decades or longer. Some of them have been candidates for 30 years or more. The agency is going to address them all," said Mark Salvo, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, one of the conservation groups that negotiated the settlement. "What has started as a trickle of decisions will soon become a gusher."
On Oct. 25, the Fish and Wildlife Service released its official list of candidate species. Seven are making their first appearance; the rest have been there before. Over the next year, 48 will be reviewed and given the protection they deserve. Within five years, the list will be almost completely cleared.
Some of the animals, like the Mexican wolf, are powerfully charismatic. Others, like the Florida bonneted bat or Spring pygmy sunfish, might be considered ugly, even forgettable. But each represents a singular, unreplicable form of life -- millions of years of evolution culminating in a creature whose fate is now in our hands. For many if not most, this year could mark the beginning of their recovery.
Wired Sciences profiles a few of our favorites on the following pages.
Known for their elaborate, loud courtship rituals — there's a reason "grouse" is a verb — Gunnison sage grouse are found in southwestern Colorado and the southeastern tip of Utah. Depending for survival on intact ranges of sagebrush, their numbers have dropped by an estimated 98 percent since 1900.Image: Dave Menke, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Sagebrush Sea