Smith Fellows
Smith Fellow


The U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) is one of the most powerful and effective conservation laws in the world, providing a legal framework for protecting and recovering species that are threatened or endangered. Advances in genomic technologies, which have long promised to revolutionize conservation, have immense potential for informing ESA listing and recovery decisions. In particular, genomic data can be used to quantify evolutionary potential and adaptive capacity, which can improve both species delineation and extinction risk assessments. However, these data can also pose unprecedented challenges to existing decision frameworks. This issue is exemplified by a recent ESA petition to list Upper Klamath-Trinity River spring-run Chinook salmon on the basis of adaptive genomic data. This case, and the controversy surrounding it, points to the urgent need for a synthetic evaluation of the possibilities and challenges posed by genomic data for ESA decision-making.

Using a hierarchical approach to species delineation and a landscape genomic simulation framework to assess extinction risk, I will investigate how best to integrate genomic data into listing decisions under the ESA. By considering a taxonomically diverse set of case studies, including Chinook salmon, Southwestern willow flycatcher, and Great Basin Columbia spotted frogs, I will identify patterns that point to general principles for incorporating genomic data into the ESA listing process. I will work closely with mentors from the two federal agencies that administer the ESA (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service) to ensure that the guidelines and analytical tools I develop are relevant to ESA decision-making frameworks and are accessible to agency biologists applying them to new cases. My research will comprehensively evaluate and, if needed, modify existing ESA frameworks for conserving biodiversity to accommodate the novel insights generated by genomic data.


Twitter: @BrennaRForester

Photo credit:

Columbia Spotted Frog: Jim Harvey, U.S. Forest Service