Aaron Haines

Aaron Haines, an associate professor of conservation biology at Millersville University, examines a mouse in this submitted photo. Haines was the lead author on a recently published study looking at endangered species recovery.

After years of studying threats to endangered species, Aaron Haines said he’s become used to the feeling of dread he’s seen in some of his Millersville University students.

The associate professor of conservation biology recalled conversations about threats like pollution, changing climates and other potential environmental disasters. They're all topics capable of souring his undergraduate students’ hope for species recovery, he said.

“At some point you just give up if things are terrible enough,” Haines said. “We've got some very good students coming through and good young minds, and we need to give them hope that things can get better.”

It’s an optimism that Haines aims to foster with newly published research that looks to past success, highlighting the circumstances that have helped species overcome imminent threats of extinction.

“We can learn from those success stories,” Haines said.

And hopefully, those lessons can be used to inform future recovery efforts, including government action, he said.

Details of the research

Haines channeled that ambition into a multiyear project researching the nation’s endangered species alongside his colleague, Matthias Leu, a biologist at the College of William & Mary in Virginia.

Most recently, their focus was on the about 50 species — plants and animals — that have been removed from the endangered list.

“It had been decades since scientists looked at what works for recovery, and with an increase in recent recovery efforts, we needed an update,” Haines said, announcing the study’s findings, which were published late last month in the journal “Frontiers in Conservation Science.”

This week, Haines pointed to examples like peregrine falcons, birds that were among the first species protected as endangered in the United States in the 1970s. Chemical pollution, stemming from the widespread use of pesticides like DDT, threatened the falcons’ ability to successfully hatch offspring.

“This caused species to disappear from many parts of its range,” Haines said.

But after pesticides like DDT were banned and federal laws boosted environmental protections, the falcons made a comeback and were delisted in 1999, he said.

Haines also mentioned American alligators. Another early inclusion on the endangered species list, the alligators required protection from unregulated hunting and poaching, he said.

Stricter penalties for poaching, a more regulated hunting program and the establishment of protected habitats all helped to lead to species recovery and delisting in 1987, Haines said.

Outlining strategies

It’s those examples and more that helped to inform Haines’ published research, which outlines five strategies that could aid future recovery efforts.

In addition to calling for increased public funding of wildlife conservation, the research stresses the need for regulators to boost environmental protections, to set aside land for protected habitats and to work with private landowners to encourage similar work in non-public areas.

That’s all in addition to allowing adequate time for species to recover, researchers said, pointing out that this means not getting discouraged when improvements aren’t immediate.

Sometimes it’s easy to get discouraged, especially for students of science, who can become fixated on articles and studies focused on pollution, extinctions and other potential environmental catastrophes, student Delaney Costante said.

“We've all got kind of this pretty dismal outlook on it,” she said.

Student contributions

Haines and Leu didn’t conduct their research alone. They also enlisted a revolving group of students, which included Costante. She began her work with the professors as an undergraduate biology student at Millersville and continues as she pursues a master’s degree at William & Mary.

And Costante, 25, of East Petersburg explained that their work wasn’t the type of romanticized research that leads to trips to exotic locations and hands-on work with animals.

Instead, the students spent hundreds of hours reading through government Endangered Species Act records — both for the approximately 50 delisted species and the roughly 1,600 species that remain endangered. It’s in those documents that the researchers looked for clues about successful recoveries, and, previously, threats that cause species endangerment. Often there is a human cause, the research shows.

Haines described the work as daunting and unglamorous.

“The language was so diverse and nebulous and inconsistent,” Haines said of differences within the documents that were created over the decades since the act was created in 1973.

Still, it’s important work, he said. That’s true not only for the protection of endangered species but also the students, whose help on the project translates to real-world experience that can be included on future job applications.

“That's somebody you want to hire,” Haines said. “We've got brilliant young people.”

Inspired by successes

Costante, who co-authored the study, said she was grateful for the opportunity.

So was Emily Ritter, a 21-year-old Millersville University senior who helped with the research and is acknowledged in the published study.

She said the reading-intensive work discouraged a few of her classmates.

“They don’t want to do the dirty work. They don’t want to read the documents,” she said. “But I feel like this information is really important to gather.”

The examination of past successes also has been somewhat inspiring, said Ritter, who is studying biology.

“Doing this kind of research makes me more hopeful,” she said, explaining she too has grown familiar with the negativity that persists among some of her peers. “Sharing the success stories is very important because it’s very bleak.”

Practical impact

Haines made sure to point out that the group’s research has the potential to be more than a mood-booster. In fact, he hopes that it might impact the creation of policies that will support, or even accelerate, the delisting process.

He said it’s an achievable goal that’s likely helped by the fact that members of the national conservation group Defenders of Wildlife partnered with researchers on the study. The group, he said, has existing connections with decision-makers in D.C.

“We anticipate that members of Congress, the new Biden administration and career staff in agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can immediately begin to use these results,” study coauthor Jacob Malcom of Defenders of Wildlife said in a statement.

Obviously, that’s not a guarantee, Haines said, but still, he maintained his optimism.

“I hope so,” he said.

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